The woman closest to the viewer, tending three children playing with two hoops, two dogs and a ball, is shown as if the central actor on a stage — the nanny, with supporting players and props.
The frieze-like stillness of the three other nannies, who stand lined up beside a stone balustrade, enhances the sense of movement conveyed by the legs of the boys, the shivering curved back of the small black dog and the turning head of the nanny in the foreground as she looks down at the small girl. Behind are five more dogs and a line of horses and carriages presumably waiting to convey the nannies and their charges home.
As suggested by the fallen leaves on the far right of the screen, the setting was a garden — the Tuileries Gardens near the Place de la Concorde, Paris. The gardens had been enlarged in 1889, and were described in the guidebook for travellers, Baedeker, as the ‘most popular promenade in Paris and the especial paradise of nursemaids and children’.
There was a growing demand for decorative screens in Paris in the 1890s, partly because of the popularity of Japanese art and traditional objects. Bonnard’s enthusiasm for Japanese woodblock prints is evident here in the simplified use of colour (brown, black, blue, yellow and red), the ‘empty’ space, the deployment of incidents from top to bottom down each panel, and the all-over pattern and flattening of the three nannies’ billowing cloaks.
Lithographs of this size were something of a technical marvel at the time — in a letter to his mother Bonnard referred to this screen as ‘the eighth wonder of the world’. With four lithographs strung together like this the eye has to travel between one detail and another, giving the viewer a sense of being in the scene.