Pierre Bonnard, the great colourist among modern French artists, was born in a small town southwest of Paris in 1867, studied law at the Sorbonne from 1885 to 1888, but then turned to painting, attending the École des Beaux-Arts and the Académie Julian. With Maurice Denis, Paul Sérusier and Edouard Vuillard, Bonnard formed the Nabis (Hebrew for prophets), drawing on the work of Paul Gauguin and then Japanese woodcuts.
Pierre Bonnard's first one-man show was in Paul Durand-Ruel's gallery in 1896, and he exhibited in the Paris Fall Salon from 1903. In time he added graphic artist, illustrator, poster designer, furniture and stage design to his accomplishments. His palette became lighter after the breakup of the Nabis group in 1905, and the simple street scenes of Paris were replaced by nudes, still lifes and portraits. Landscapes appeared on trips to Holland, Belgium, Great Britain, Italy, Spain and north Africa. He finally married his model and common-law wife Marthe Boursin/de Méligny in 1925, and moved the following year to Le Cannet in southern France in 1926, which became his fixed residence. Marthe died in 1940, and, having completed the large mural "Saint Francis visiting the Sick" in the church of Assy, Bonnard followed her on January 23rd, 1947.
Les Nabis artists possibly so called because most were bearded and looked earnest in a rabbinical way were influenced by Japanese prints, art nouveau and post-Impressionists like Gauguin and Lautrec. They placed an emphasis on the non-realistic aspects of art: reducing the third dimension to theatre flats, and concerning themselves with page layout and negative space. Those characterstics continued when the avant-garde moved into its fauve, cubist and abstract phases. The group worked in many media: oils on canvas and cardboard, distemper on canvas, wall decoration, posters, prints, book illustration, textiles and furniture. Members went their separate way after the breakup of the Nabis group, but generally retained some interest in their earlier concerns.
1908 Oil on canvas. Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels.
In this well known painting, the woman poses in a room almost seething with decoration: in the lace curtains, the wallpaper, sofa and carpet. Even the blues and green-blues of the washstand and bath in the left side of painting have the shimmer of water. We feel distinctly uneasy in the setting the more so because the sofa seems not securely fastened to the floor, and the perspective of the bath suggests we are more suspended over it than standing back to view the young woman as presented.
That nude study has splendid vitality, but some odd features when we look closely. Her left thigh has a thickening or bulge, and both feet disappear into a haze of light and rather muddy colours. Her right elbow glows and both legs are striated with lighter and warmer colours than the light source makes possible. Indeed, apart from the oddities, it's also a rather academic study and not in keeping with the cheerfully naif painting of the rest of the work.
Does it all work? Just about, if we make virtues of what before modernism were seen as shortcomings. Bonnard has established his direct way of painting and will not shift from it to plan in the way taught in academies. Each painting is an adventure, an attempt to make a pleasing result as the paint is applied and the scene takes shape. Sometimes things work and sometimes they don't, but the failures can be corrected in another painting. A usual colour scheme here would be split analogous, yellow against red-pinkish to green-blue but Bonnard has fresh greens in the far wall and carpet, and clearly feels they are necessary, although he may have reduced them a little in the wallpaper. And he's right. The aim was not a harmonious composition but one in which the woman's strong figure brings calm and solidity to the shifting surroundings. Later, in his 'woman in a bath' series, the figure too will dissolve into a fuzz of pointillist-like colours, but here she stands Janus like between the new and the old conceptions of painting.
Nude in Yellow. Oil on canvas. Private collection
In this imposing work the Mediterranean light has filled the room with a bright happiness, and the colour expresses that mood. Even the woman's body, sensitively modeled about the back, buttocks and thighs, seems incendiary with the light, and the sun-filled draperies are left as coloured doodlings on white. The shapes create interesting patterns but depths are ambivalent: it is the clothes on the chair that give these scenery flats their position in the third dimension. The colour scheme is split analogous, yellow against pink-purple-blue. The textures tie the shapes together.
Again, this is a celebrated piece, but not without its problems. Form has largely dissolved into patterns: the washstand, clothes on the chair, and the lace drapes on the window. Only the unclothed woman has some substance, though the flesh texture and colour are similar to the walls and floor. To prevent the figure being lost into the wall, Bonnard has had to add a rather arbitrary outline, blue or white on the body and red about the hair. The drawing is weak. The feet don't rest securely in the shoes and the woman's left shoulder and arm dwindle away into some curious proboscis or muscular tube. The model is generally taken to be Bonnard's mistress, the youthful features being explained by Bonnard painting from memory, notes and photographs, but there is something disturbing in a work that doesn't bother to get basic features right of a woman lived with for forty years.
Bonnard was a not a revolutionary artist but a Nabi painter of quiet domestic scenes. He painted longer in the style than almost anyone else, and his best works express a warm contentment in the life around. Here, however, that love of surface dazzle and texture has become an end in itself, art no longer being a celebration of the visual world, but an exercise in painterly concerns. Washstand, clothes and windows are very different things, in colour, texture, density, material, significance, etc., but have here been flattened into diaphanous, insubstantial matters.
No one could dislike Bonnard. His pieces are warm, intimate and colourful, if sometimes a little droll or inconsequential wth their interiors, dogs and domestic tranquility. But the work could have been much better, and in general artists of the last century and a half have not been well served by the art establishment, which first ignored their work and then lavished unqualified praise on things that were only good in part. Modern painting has become collectable, and no doubt investments would be at risk if dealers, galleries, museums and critics did not continually talk up the stock, hanging contemporary pieces of modest achievement beside the great masterpieces of the past and explaining any perceived faults or shortcomings by appeal to esoteric theory. But painting is a dialogue between artist and public, and is probably better conducted in ways that painters understand: i.e. in seeing what they try to do, how, and to what extent their attempts are successful.
1. Pierre Bonnard French Artist 1867-1947. Simply Art.
2. Les Nabis. Wikipedia. Useful section on style.
3. Great Paintings. Edwin Mullins. BBC 1981. pp 25-29.
4. Pierre Bonnard by Carter B. Horsley. The Museum of Modern Art. City Review.
5. Pierre Bonnard. Wiki Paintings. A small but fairly representative selection.
6. Artists by Movement: Les Nabis 1891-1899. Art Cyclopedia. Small selection from representative artists.
7. Complicated Bliss by Jed Perl Pierre Bonnard: The Late Interiors Metropolitan Museum of Art. The New Republic. Laudatory article.
8. The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art by Don Thompson. Palgrave Macmillan April 2010. An eye-opener to the uninitiated.
9. The Value of Art: Money, Power, Beauty by Michael Findlay. Prestel Publishing. April 2012. A more detailed and serious analysis of the art market.