The son of a modest Parisian constable, François Bonvin expressed an interest in art while quite young and began formally studying at the age of eleven. He painted his earliest known work, a still life, while employed as a clerk for the Paris police. Deeply inspired by the Dutch master paintings of the 1600s that he saw at the Louvre, Bonvin painted still lifes and genre scenes characterized by a quiet, intimate, and meditative style. Many of his genre scenes display Pieter de Hooch's influence.
After becoming acquainted with Gustave Courbet, Bonvin became a leading exponent of Realism. Though he had little money, he encouraged and supported other artists, frequently giving supplies to his talented half-brother, Leon Bonvin. When the Salon rejected his fellow Realists James McNeill Whistler and Henri Fantin-Latour in 1859, Bonvin exhibited their work in his atelier. In his later years, he spent time in the Netherlands and London before settling in a small French village. He continued to draw and paint everyday objects and local scenes with delicately rendered light and shadow.