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Pierre Bonnard – French Modernist Painter

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Pierre Bonnard – French Modernist Painter  like many of the Impressionists, never intended to become an artist. Coming from a well to do Family, he had a carefree childhood and , as a young man, obviously no financial worries.

At his Father’s insistence he did study law. And actually graduated as a Barrister. However his interest in Art, kindled in no small measure by the classes he took “on the side” while he was at law school, soon became his preoccupation.

Meeting Toulouse Latrec, cemented Bonnard’s resolve to make Art is life’s calling.

Unique among painters, Bonnard didn’t paint from life. But rather sketched and/or photographed his subjects, made notes on the colors, and later painted from his notes.

Jorg Zutter of Austraila’s National Gallery, an authority on the Modernist Style of Pierre Bonnard  has the complete story:

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.


 France 1867 – 1947
Balcony at Vernonnet [Le Balcon à Vernonnet] c. 1920 oil on canvas 100.0 (h) x 78.0 (w) cm Musée des Beaux-Arts, Brest

Bonnard was a founding member of the experimental artists’ group known as the Nabis, who were young admirers of Paul Gauguin — painters and sculptors such as Paul Sérusier, Ker-Xavier Roussel, Edouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis, Aristide Maillol and Félix Vallotton. Bonnard and Vuillard in particular were close friends and both developed a new type of intimate, psychologically charged rendering of interiors. Bonnard considered his art to be individual, full of meaning, and of a significance transcending a single time or place.


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.

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. 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’, with 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.


The Red Blouse [Le Corsage rouge] 1925 oil on canvas 50.0 (h) x 52.0 (w) cm Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris Musée national d’art moderne, Centre de création industrielle

DECORATIVE LANDSCAPES AND INTERIORS Around 1900, together with Vuillard, Denis and Roussel, Bonnard was sought after as a painter of decorative landscapes showing urban settings such as parks, squares or boulevards, frequently with groups of figures. In 1906 Bonnard started work on four monumental panels for the apartment of Misia and Alfred Edwards, at 21 quai Voltaire in Paris. Here, in the dining room, he installed dozens of abundant forms and figures, including, fauns, nymphs, bathers, dancers, and exotic animals in a tropical nature. This group of panels and other such decorative works are important not only because they expand the program of traditional easel painting, responding instead to a broader iconographic schema, but also because they are part of a large ensemble, conceived to fit a particular interior. It is interesting to compare the decorative style of Bonnard to that of Henri Matisse who, by about 1905 after adopting the garish colours of the Fauves, was considered to be among the most important avant-garde painters.



Woman with Cat
 [La femme au chat] 1912 oil on canvas 78.0 (h) x 77.0 (w) cm Musée d’Orsay, Paris

A number of Bonnard’s interiors can be seen as daring answers to his friend Matisse’s conception of space. In 1910 Bonnard began to develop a group of interiors depicting contemplative figures in a room. Whereas the interiors of the Nabi years are small in scale and private in ambience, these later works are more public, less intimate. They have a stagelike effect, with Bonnard presenting his characters proudly to the viewer. Marthe becomes almost an actress, whether seen in the shadow of a playful little white cat, Woman with Cat 1912, or in a more active, emancipated role where, elegantly dressed, as in The Red Blouse 1925, she dominates the scene. No longer implanted in a private, restricted environment, Bonnard’s figures are exposed to reality. No children appear, the scenes are open and less intimate, gaslight is replaced by dazzling electric light. People are less subordinated to space and more involved in a balanced dialogue with the object world.


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.


Balcony at Vernonnet
[Le Balcon à Vernonnet] c. 1920 oil on canvas 100.0 (h) x 78.0 (w) cm Musée des Beaux-Arts, Brest

Paintings like Balcony at Vernonnet c.1920 resonate with Bonnard’s ambition to capture the region’s riotous vegetation and to filter and transform it into a well-structured composition. The impression of a wild patch of nature full of colour and light — a chaotic structure — is only one’s first, superficial sense of the picture; a second reading of this and many similar works from Vernonnet reveals a carefully developed, highly sophisticated composition. The dialogue between architecture and nature, wildness and domesticity, people and landscape, is sublimely expressed.


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.


The Provençal Jug
 [Le Pot provençal] 1930 oil on canvas 75.5 (h) x 62.0 (w) cm Private collection

LE CANNET In 1926 Bonnard bought a house, Le Bosquet (The Grove), in Le Cannet on the Côte d’Azur not far from Cannes. Having completed some renovation on the house, in February 1927 Bonnard invited Matisse, who lived in Nice, to visit him. He wrote: ‘You will find our house on avenue Victoria, it is the highest street in the neighbourhood — the house is pink.’ He and Marthe stayed often in Le Bosquet, and he painted many interiors and landscapes of the surrounding countryside. The Provençal Jug 1930 shows a detail of the mantelpiece in the so-called ‘small sitting room’ on the first floor of the house.


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. As 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.


Mediterranean Landscape, Le Cannet
 [Paysage méridional, Le Cannet] 1929-1930 oil on canvas 56.0 (h) x 47.5 (w) cm Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris Musée national d’art moderne, Centre de création industrielle

Mediterranean Landscape, Le Cannet1929–30 is typical of the landscapes Bonnard painted in the neighbourhood, and well documents his goal of condensing his daily experiences and thoughts. Unframed  by any window or piece of architecture (except for a small bridge, obviously the bridge over the little Canal de la Siagne, close to his house), the rich foliage on either side of the picture creates a window that opens out through the centre of the canvas to show the Esterel mountains in the distance.


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.

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