Pierre Bonnard’s paintings are today considered to be the work of a highly versatile artist of the modern era who continues to surprise and attract new generations of art lovers and artists throughout the world. His way of painting people and landscapes suggests a careful balancing act between observing, capturing and translating nature into vibrant colours and interrelated forms.
At the time Bonnard started his artistic career, Paris was the centre of the modern world. It was 1889, the year of the Exposition universelle, a world’s fair organised to commemorate the centenary of the French Revolution and to boost the national economy and culture. Bonnard and his Nabi friends assimilated the multicultural, cosmopolitan spirit of the time and the city’s new lifestyle, transposing it into their art — a taste for decorative pictorial motifs borrowed from contemporary design, an interest in Japanese art and, not least of all, an inclination to move between subjects inspired by the fast-moving urban surrounds and scenes of leisure, at home or in the country. They were inventing a new definition of art as a form of creation embracing the broad areas of human life and culture: literature, theatre, music, dance, photography, applied art, interior design, fashion design, and more. For example, the entire Nabi group began to produce illustrations and to design covers for the literary and artistic journal La Revue blanche — with Bonnard and Vuillard working closely together. As Bonnard said: ‘Our generation always sought the correspondences between art and life. At this period I personally had a notion of popular production and an art of function: graphic art, furniture, fans, screens, etc.’1
Modern life From 1895 onward, street scenes, as the visible, public side of modern life, and interiors and small genre scenes, as the private, secret side of it, dominated Bonnard’s work. His interest in his Paris street environment is clear in the lithographic screen Nannies’ Promenade, Frieze of Carriages 1895/99 (Art Gallery of New South Wales, Gift of Margaret Olley). He wrote to his mother in 1894, when he created a draft for this print in distemper on canvas: ‘I’m making a screen for the Champ-de-Mars [the Salon des Indépendants]. In any case it will be for the present time the eighth wonder of the world.’2 Like many of his friends — artists, writers, critics, composers — Bonnard was constantly observing and commenting on daily life. Eager to capture striking phenomena for his art, he collected the sensations of the city. Rather than focusing on a single event or object, his was a ‘mobile vision’,3with eyes always active, continuously moving, literally hunting new images.
Bonnard’s genre scenes and individual portraits were inspired by the ambience of his private life, his family, his lover Marthe (Maria Boursin, whom he met in 1893), and his friends in different intellectual and cultural milieux; whereas his group portraits and street scenes were infused by the rhythm, energy, and events of public life in the urban environment. He is not so much providing a faithful description of the energy of urban life, in the older tradition of the Impressionists, as he is seeking to depict that energy in a thrilling decorative form and in a modern figurative style.
Bonnard spent holidays in his parents’ house, Le Clos, at Le Grand-Lemps in the Dauphiné. Many of his interiors and landscapes are infused with the light and lushness of this rural region between Lyons and Grenoble. He was much attached to the house and his stays there were always artistically productive.
NUDES In sharp contrast to depictions of bourgeois life, leisure, and children’s games in the garden of Le Clos, Bonnard painted voluptuous, almost risqué images of nudes, in his Paris studio and in the house he had rented at Morval outside the city. Marthe, his model, usually appears in the bathroom, in the tub or stepping out of it. The emotional atmosphere in these interiors varies from erotic and intimate to private and solitary.
Bonnard’s nudes are often distinguished from contemporaneous academic nudes through his unorthodox, sensual approach to the female body. Considered very progressive, his nudes made him famous among patrons and collectors.
Bonnard undertook fewer decorative projects in the 1920s, but his decorative style spread beyond panels designed for specific interiors into the often large-scale landscapes that he had begun to paint in the village of Vernonnet where he frequently worked in these years, having acquired a little house there in 1912. Vernonnet is on the Seine near Vernon, a few kilometres west of Giverny, where Monet had lived and worked for almost 30 years. The two men became close friends. Unlike Monet though, Bonnard did not grow a carefully planned garden. At his house in Vernonnet, Ma Roulotte (My Caravan), the garden was an overgrown jungle of wildflowers, brush and trees. Bonnard painted the view from his window, from the large balcony, from the neighbouring hills. He captured the lush vegetation of the Seine valley, often showing a lesser interest in topographical details.
In the summer of 1909, following the example of other painters of his generation — Matisse, Paul Signac, Henri Manguin, Albert Marquet — whose art had been influenced by the light and environment of the Mediterranean coast, Bonnard worked for the first time in Saint-Tropez. His discovery of the radiant light and luminous colour of the South of France, so different from northern Europe, was a key experience for him and he returned to this region, the Midi, year after year. He would continue to work and exhibit in Paris, but he travelled a lot and spent long periods with Marthe in Vernonnet. On 15 August 1925, in Paris, Bonnard and Marthe were married.
By 1931 Le Bosquet was Bonnard’s favourite place to work and in 1939 it became the couple’s permanent home. The house and its surroundings provided an ideal environment for the artist, who continued to paint studies of Marthe, often standing in the bathroom or lying in the tub. He also painted still lifes, self-portraits, interiors, and views onto the countryside from different windows and doors.
Bonnard produced over 200 paintings in Le Cannet.5As the inspiration for his landscapes in particular and his work in general, he used sketches he made during daily walks in the countryside and notes he made of weather conditions. Early in February 1935 he wrote to Matisse: ‘Right now I stroll around the countryside and try to observe it like a farmer.’6
Instead of finishing one canvas before starting a new one, Bonnard worked simultaneously on different paintings, comparing them with each other and often completing them only after long periods of reflection. He might tack a nude, an interior, a landscape, and a self-portrait to the walls of his studio at the one time, constantly forcing himself to consider different outcomes, multiple ideas and solutions. The acts of creation and decision making became longer and longer toward the end of his career, not only because of his own critical attitude but because of the political circumstances of occupied France during World War II, which led to his voluntary exile in Le Cannet where his scope of action, his universe, became quite narrow and introverted.
For Nude Crouching in the Bath 1940 Bonnard used sketches he had made in his diary two years earlier. Marthe’s dramatically cropped body is full of energy — its confinement in the tub does not detract from the dynamism of the composition. The work has an overpowering simplicity, and counterbalances the more abstract solutions in Bonnard’s similar paintings of this motif. On another level Nude Crouching in the Bath stands more for a notion of regeneration and resurrection. This is perhaps Bonnard’s strongest message to posterity in his late work.7
During the war years Bonnard was struck by ill fate. He lost his friend Vuillard in 1940, Marthe died in 1942, then Denis in 1943 and Roussel in 1944. Bonnard was overwhelmed by sadness and despair. He had painted self-portraits all his life, but it was only in the 1930s that he developed a real interest in depicting himself in front of a mirror — in his Self-portrait of 1945, which is considered his last self-portrait, he showed himself without indulgence or pity.
For Almond Tree in Blossom there is another parallel. In the Romantic, Barbizon School and Impressionist periods, trees were rich symbols of cultural and historical identity and continuity; Bonnard has expanded this meaning. More than the late Self-portrait, Almond Tree in Blossom is a kind of compilation of the artist’s last messages, his legacy, the symbol of his consciousness, his goal of ‘giving life to painting’8 and his permanent claim of being ‘in constant contact with nature’.9