The artistic legacy of Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947) calls to mind the many dazzling bathing paintings of Marthe, his wife and muse of nearly fifty years, modeling in the bathtub, toweling her ever-youthful figure, or gazing at her nude likeness at her toilette. These shimmering visions of still waters, iridescent tiles, and private escapes have been in the public eye for many decades. The social and cultural milieu of Bonnard takes us back to another era, that of the later years of the nineteenth century, when a group of young artists commingled in Paris as friends and fellow painters. Emulating the expressive color and bold pattern used by Paul Gauguin, their aim was to explore a form of decorative painting. Called the Nabis (Hebrew for “prophets”), their imprint on French art was brief but indelible.
The Nabis disbanded around 1900, and Bonnard would spend the next forty-seven years searching for the right expression as a painter. Pablo Picasso famously called Bonnard’s painted palette “a potpourri of indecision.” In fact, that palette was anything but an arbitrary assemblage of hues on canvas. For Bonnard, the act of painting was an investigation—the investigation of the physical substance of paint, the visual rhymes echoing throughout the canvas, the dialogue of color notes. These formal considerations set him apart from the conceptual art of his French contemporaries. The tension of brushwork that animates Bonnard’s paintings, especially the late work, is precisely due to carefully considered color relationships throughout the canvas rectangle. Those relationships probe color as it translates light, and light as it transforms color. Color and its infinite relationships become the metaphor for Bonnard’s experience of his subject.
In Bonnard’s late interiors, we discover a universe of familiar rooms, objects, and models. Bonnard explicitly admitted that he could only paint the familiar. The rituals of daily life—taking tea, feeding the cat, tending to the dinner table—were his subjects. One might imagine the artist positioning his easel in the very rooms echoed in the canvases; one might assume that he worked from life, and that he set the stage for his table props and figures. But, in fact, Bonnard had a very different approach. His interiors began as small drawings and watercolors, the drawings made on the pages of tiny diaries, the watercolors worked up in the studio, often with the aid of pencil and gouache. The paintings developed slowly over time. Only when he felt a deep familiarity with his subject—be it a human model or a modest household jug—did he feel ready to paint it. The terracotta jug in Breakfast (ca. 1930; private collection) may have been resting on the shelf in the next room, readily available for study, but for Bonnard it was more useful as etched in memory. Rather than the object itself, it is the memory of the object that Bonnard captures. Asked if he might consider adding a specific object to his carefully circumscribed still-life repertoire, he demurred, saying, “I haven’t lived with that long enough to paint it.”
Bonnard lived into his eightieth year, spending time increasingly at Le Bosquet, his small house in Le Cannet overlooking the Mediterranean. The downstairs dining room and the upstairs sitting room provide the constructs for some of his finest interiors and still lifes, such as Corner of the Dining Room at Le Cannet (1932; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris), The White Interior (1932; Musée de Grenoble), and The French Window (1932; private collection), much as the claw-footed tub provides a context for the iconic pictures of Marthe at her bath. It may seem paradoxical that imagery so close at hand was never directly painted from observation. Yet while Bonnard may not have chosen to paint at the dining room table, his studio, after all, was just up the stairs, And while that studio may have been where Bonnard kept his paints and brushes, where he tacked his canvases to the wall, and where he retreated from the world, it was not in the studio that he found his source of inspiration. That was left to the rooms of Le Bosquet, to the daily rituals of breakfast and tea, to the comfort of seeing Marthe feeding the cat. In the familiar, Bonnard discovered infinite possibilities.
At first glance, Bonnard’s late interiors give the impression of contentment and prosperity. Tables abundantly laid with fruit and cheese, glinting silverware, and glazed porcelain suggest domestic ease. More careful scrutiny, however, suggests a disquiet aspect: the human presence or absence. In Before Dinner (1975.1.156), the models are disengaged from each other and do not participate in the evening ritual. The meal is served, but no one takes up the narrative. The figures, though physically present, are emotionally absent. In later paintings, figures become peripheral, even spectral, lacking corporeality. Some disappear off the picture plane, as in Dining Room Overlooking the Garden (The Breakfast Room) (1930–31; Museum of Modern Art, New York). In Corner of the Dining Room at Le Cannet, the woman’s fringed shawl is a colorful point of reference in the red-orange interior, more effective as an arresting concentration of Naples yellow than as a reflection of its wearer. In the end, the dialogue in Bonnard’s paintings is not a dialogue between people. It is a conversation between objects, colors, and the geometry of interiors, between bursts of light and their attendant hues, between those who are present and those who are absent.
It is only after looking at the late interiors for some time that one begins to recognize their uncanny relatedness. The table in Corner of the Dining Room at Le Cannet is the same table laid with baskets and plates of fresh fruit seen in The Dessert (Beyeler Collection, Basel), here bathed in saffron light, transformed by the palette into a field of warm yellow hues. The color white is a foil for the unfolding color spectrum in The French Window. It is light that radiates color and draws the eye from one passage to another. Although throughout his life, Bonnard spoke of trying to understand the secret of white, it is yellow—for Bonnard, the color of light—that pervades the late paintings. And it was yellow that he associated with his deceased model and mistress Renée Monchaty. In 1921, before Bonnard and Marthe were married, he started a painting, Young Women in the Garden (ca. 1921–23, reworked 1945–46; private collection), using Renée and Marthe as models. Four years later, Bonnard and Marthe were married; Renée committed suicide. Bonnard abandoned the picture for twenty-two years. He would return to it only after Marthe’s death, when he added the brilliant yellow ground, gilding the canvas in memoriam.
One could argue that, for Bonnard, color and its color harmonies become the overriding metaphor for the expression of his experience. Color in his late painting transcends descriptive content; it moves well away from the local color of a Cézanne still life, for example. In the late masterpieces, color becomes the subject, the vehicle of light, and the means by which we enter the paintings with our eyes. Using hot and cold hues, Bonnard guides the eye, very deliberately, on an adventure through the positive and negative spaces of his complex canvases. One cannot stress enough the importance Bonnard gave to finding the image in paint and to finding the boundaries of his rectangle.