Pierre Bonnard: the Intimiste
Pierre Bonnard, The French Window (Morning at Le Cannet) 1932
I am not sure whether the term “vocation” exactly applies to me. What attracted me then was less art itself than the artist’s life, with all that I thought in terms of free expression, of imagination and liberty to live as one pleased . . . I wanted at all costs, to escape from a monotonous existence. –Pierre Bonnard
Pierre Bonnard was born on 3 October 1867 at Fontenay-aux-Roses, a village outside Paris, into a comfortable bourgeois family. He studied at various Lycées, receiving a law degree in 1888. He began his artistic studies first at the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs in Paris and then at the Académie Julian, where he met his lifetime friends and collaborators, including Maurice Denis, Ker-Xavier Roussel, Edouard Vuillard and Paul Sérusier.
These rebellious young men formed Les Nabis, a group dedicated to integrating art and daily life through a synthesis of nature and a personal aesthetic and symbolism. This included wall decoration, posters, prints, book illustration, textiles and furniture as well as painting on walls and canvas. In 1891 Bonnard met Toulouse Latrec and showed his work at the annual exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants. Bonnard had his first one man show in 1896. From this point of view he became an established and successful artist at a young age.
Bonnard had made his mark early by winning a competition for a French champagne poster 1n 1891. This work was seminal and most likely influenced Toulouse Lautrec’s more famous Moulin Rouge posters.
Pierre Bonnard, Poster for France Champagne 1891
In 1893, while travelling on a tram, Bonnard saw a sempstress called Maria Boursin and followed her home. She told him she was called Marthe de Méligny and was only 17 years old, although she was 24. Her motive for misleading him was to escape from the demi-monde, where she worked sewing pearls on funeral garments. Bonnard was taken in by the sprightly girl and she becomes his model and lifelong companion, but he never married her until 1925, when he was 58.
Pierre Bonard, Self Portrait with Lamp 1908
The Self Portrait with Lamp shows him as an introverted and myopic man of 40, his features masked in the shadow of a lamp. The worried expression and tentative grip on the paintbrush perhaps expessing his fears that he was being eclipsed by the brilliance of his contemporaries, although Picasso and Matisse had yet to make their mark with the public: Luxe, Calme, et Volupté had appeared in 1905 and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in 1907. However, in 1902 Bonnard had collaborated with Ambrose Vollard on an edition of Daphnis et Chloé by Longus with 156 lithographic illustrations by Bonnard. In 1906 Gertrude Stein had acquired the nude painting of Marthe called Siesta. A couple of years later he had travelled throughout Europe, to England, Tunisia and Algeria and so was by no means as reclusive and naive as the portrait might suggest.
Pierre Bonard, Indolence 1899
The term Intimiste in the title is well defined by the painting Indolence. How different from Manet’s Olympia or from Cezanne’s crude imitation of that painting. There is no hint of self-consciousness with Bonnard’s “private view” of his sprawling mistress or justification of a gentleman’s formal relationship with prostitutes and lower class women, so well depicted by Degas and Toulouse Lautrec. Already the figure is subordinated to the design of the painting, with its diagonal division between purplish brown shadow and the golden glow of sunlight from the window. Here is the essence of bourgeois paradise, “When lovely woman stoops to folly,” and the beginning of Bonnard’s method of creating a hinterland between reality as seen by the eye and the visual Eden he wished to create out of his personal life.
In the 1880s, the influence of Japanese prints became widespread in Paris and led to the use of broad areas of colour by both Gauguin, Van Gogh and others. Bonnard discovered Japanese block prints in an 1890 exhibition at the École des Beaux-Arts, and became a lifetime collector of this foreign art form. He recoded his passion in a letter to his friend Gaston Diehl:
In a department store, for a few pennies, I found some [printed] crepe paper or crinkled rice paper in stunning colours. I covered the walls of my room with this bright, naïve imagery . . . these things that I had there in front of me were extremely skillful and lively.
Pierre Bonnard, Women in the Garden (1892-1899
The effect of Japonaisme on Bonnard did not immediately lead to the use of the brilliant colours of his later work but rather to the flattening of forms, through limited modelling of the figure, and of space by distorting perspective and exploiting “decorative” elements such as fabrics or wallpaper. This is well illustrated by the four panels of Women in the Garden.
The term “decorative” painting, particularly as applied to Bonnard, Vuillard and Matisse, has a double meaning. First, the use of patterns found in nature or on fabrics, furnishings etc. are emphasised as important design elements; second, the general philosophy that painting should give pleasure to the owner, in the way that murals, furniture, sculpture, pottery or other artefacts enhance the civilised life. Bonnard realised this latter philosophy by transforming the mundane onto a higher plane through colour and design. This idea is evident in the poster France Champagne where the hedonistic joys of wine and woman are combined.
Pierre Bonnard, Young Girl Playing with a Dog 1913
In Young Girl Playing with a Dog, the flat shapes have been abandoned and a degree of modelling applied to the girl, the bushes and the dog. However, the use of modulated textural elements, the violet foregound, the dark green background, the mottled green and yellow grass, and the blue dress are retained, albeit saturated with painterly light in the manner of the impressionists.
Picasso was very critical of Bonnard, perhaps because he ignored the Spaniard’s revolutionary transformation of painting.
“That’s not painting,” Picasso said. “Painting can’t be done that way. Painting isn’t a question of sensibility; it’s a matter of seizing the power, taking over from nature, not expecting her to supply you with information and good advice.”
Matisse was supportive, however, remarking:
“Yes! I certify that Pierre Bonnard is a great painter, for today and for the future.”
The immediate implication of Picasso’s remark is that not only should the artist dominate nature but should reject it where necessary, an attitude which led to the increasing abstraction and invention of the inter-war years, leaving the likes of Bonnard, and perhaps Matisse, behind to complete the programme started by impressionism as transformed by the post-impressionists Gauguin and Van Gogh. One can argue that building on the work of Cézanne, as Picasso and Braque did with cubism, does not exclude the intense development of colour and design derived from the works of Gauguin and Van Gogh carried through by Matisse, Bonnard and others.
Bonnard was not a plein air painter like Monet or Cézanne, any more than Picasso was. He made copious drawings and notes that served as designs for more than one painting. Working on unstretched canvas, probably with a hard surface behind, he developed a complex process of manipulating paint, rather in the way that contemporary painters do in seeking out colour and textural possibilities. The format and content of the painting could then be altered by cropping the canvas.
His subject matter became focussed on domestic interiors, augmented by garden scenes and extended to full scale landscapes, all of which he mastered and developed using his intense repertoire of complex colour. In this regard, he is comparable to Matisse and Chagall, although without the latter’s peculiar symbolic bestiary. During the 1920s the convergence between the works of Matisse and Bonnard are striking, although the latter differed in retaining the expression of volume in still life and figurative painting, in contrast to Matisse’s relative abandonment of modelled forms in favour of flat, lithographic areas of colour. Both, however, used decorative design elements as previously described, which in Matisse’s case were influenced by Islamic rather than Japanese art.
Pierre Bonnard, Interior with Flowers 1919
Bonnard’s Interior with Flowers illustrates the close affinity with Matisse, particularly with the uses of heightened or even arbitrary colour. However Bonnard’s colours are luxurious compared with the duller tones of Matisse’s Still Life with Dahlias (1923). The ambiguity between flowers and wallpaper in both paintings illustrate the reduction of object to decorative element.
Bonnard’s domestic painting gives the impression of a reclusive life but he travelled widely in Europe, both before and after the First World War. In 1909 he travelled to the South of France and, like other notable painters, was influenced by the more intense light there, and returned annually to places like Grasse, San Tropez, Antibes and Le Cannet. In 1918 he met a young girl called Renée Monchaty and asks her to model for him. She subsequently became his new mistress and figured in The Bowl of Milk shown below. With this painting, using intense tones of almost sombre red, orange and brown, the archetypal Bonnard interior is born, with its dual space of dimly lit interior and bright sunlight streaming through the window from an intensely blue southern sky, which saturates the exterior with ultramarine light.
Pierre Bonnard, The Bowl of Milk 1918-19
In many such paintings, whether in house or garden, Bonnard succeeded in depicting the subtle adjustments the human eye makes to see brilliant colour in the lower register while handling the strong contrast between brilliant sunlit surfaces and the multicoloured shadows lit from reflected light. In this example, the grey blue tablecloth in shadow resonates wonderfully with the mellow brown of the desk in shade and succeeds in being darker than the desktop in full sunlight. In musical terms, this is like experiencing sounds from a cello or lower registers of an organ working in subtly harmony.
Bonnard’s inspiration from his new muse was short lived. In August 1925, he decided to marry Marthe, which resulted in the suicide of Renee Monchaty a few weeks later. In the New Year, he bought a house at Le Cannet on the hillside above Cannes, and painted many memorable works there.
Pierre Bonnard, Two Women in the Garden 1921-23, reworked 1945-46
The painting above, Two Women in the Garden, depicts Renee, facing the viewer, and Marthe marginalised on the edge of the picture. Bonnard began the painting in 1921 and finished it only in 1946. This process of reworking paintings hid the artist’s development but unified some of his later work.
In over sixty years of assiduous toil, Bonnard produced a great many paintings of considerable variety and of consistently high quality, unlike Picasso whose later work can only generously be described as less convincing than that of his earlier periods. Selecting representative Bonnards is therefore problematical, but his skill as a landscape painter should not be overlooked. The landscape below, Bord de mer, sous les pins is reminiscent of Cézanne, except for the inclusion of figures in the foreground, which humanises the scene.
Pierre Bonnard, Bord de mer, sous les pins 1921
Finally, it is de rigueur to include an image of the washing fetishist Marthe in the bath and kinder to exclude the rather sad but vibrant self-portraits of the ageing artist.
Pierre Bonnard, Nude in Bath (1941-46)
Pierre Bonnard died in 1947, after a lifetime of producing a great many intense and beautiful paintings, in keeping with his philosophy of domestic bliss, idealised and frozen in time if not realised in real life. A calm and intelligent man, he pursued his purpose doggedly and left behind an enduring legacy of visual joy. Surely as great an achievement as any painter could wish for.
Tony Thomas was born in England in 1939, and is a retired bureaucrat living in Brisbane, Australia. He has an Australian wife, two adult daughters, a dog and a cat. He holds a degree in economics from the University of Queensland. His interests are catholic, and include: writing fiction, poetry, and blogging political diatribes. Other abiding interests include political and social philosophy, with occasional forays into logic and the foundations of mathematics.