Bonvin spent the early part of his career painting in his spare time, while working as a clerk for the Paris police. From an early date he specialised in still lifes but also painted intimate genre scenes inspired by Dutch seventeenth-century art. He was a friend of the writer and critic Champfleury and the painter Courbet, who encouraged him to join the Realist movement. His work has been compared with that of the eighteenth-century artist Chardin, whom Bonvin greatly admired, and from whose work he often borrowed particular motifs. Amongst the artists he personally encouraged were Théodule Ribot and Fantin-Latour.