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Andr´┐Ż Ostier, Pierre Bonnard, 1941, silver gelatin photograph (Detail)
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Pierre BONNARD | Woman in front of a mirror [Femme devant un miroir]
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Pierre BONNARD
France 1867 – 1947
Woman in front of a mirror
[Femme devant un miroir]
c.1908
oil on canvas
124.0 (h) x 47.4 (w) cm
signed l.l., oil, "Bonnard", not dated
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
NGA 1998.129
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Answer the following questions:
  1. Is this composition symmetrical or asymmetrical?
    Are your eyes drawn more to the top left, to the top right, to the bottom left or to the bottom right? Why?
  2. Where is the source of light? What is the effect of light falling on the woman’s body?
  3. Describe the composition in terms of rectangular shapes filled in with all-over patterns. What is the main exception?
  4. How would you describe the woman’s mood?
    How has the artist suggested this?

Note how the pattern of the floor covering appears as flat as the pattern in the wallpaper, even though the floor would be sloping away from us in perspective. The all-over wallpaper pattern and the narrow, scroll-like format of the composition reflect Bonnard’s interest in Japanese art.

As in many of Bonnard’s paintings of nudes, the figure is turned away from the viewer, pensive, pre-occupied. Interesting details at the edge of the composition are typical of his work, and here the mirror image of the model catches our eye at the top right.

Like a picture within a picture, a mirror introduces a new perspective into a painting. Bonnard, more interested in ambiguity and suggestion than accuracy, plays around with the mirror image:

  • the reflection in the mirror is too far to the right to be a reflection of the real woman standing in the room;
  • the angle of the reflected body is not a mirror image of the angle at which the real woman is standing;
  • while the real woman is clutching a piece of cloth or a nightshirt below her breast, the woman in the mirror is holding the cloth or shirt to her throat;
  • the woman in the room has her left leg stretched slightly forward, while it is the reflected right leg that is in front.

In 1935 Bonnard wrote in a letter to Matisse: ‘I agree with you that the painter’s only solid ground is the palette and colours, but as soon as the colours achieve an illusion, they are no longer judged, and the stupidities begin’ — stupidities, such as worrying about the correctness of a reflection?

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Article authored by the NGA Education department
Introduction | Gallery | Literature | Chronology | Glossary | Education Kit
The Pierre Bonnard works on this page are reproduced with the permission of
ADAGP, Paris and VISCOPY Ltd, Sydney 2003.