The Terrace at Vernonnet

Artist: Pierre Bonnard (French, Fontenay-aux-Roses 1867–1947 Le Cannet)

Date: 1939

Medium: Oil on canvas

Dimensions: 58 1/4 x 76 3/4 in. (148 x 194.9 cm)

Classification: Paintings

Credit Line: Gift of Florence J. Gould, 1968

Accession Number: 68.1

Rights and Reproduction: © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


After first studying law, Pierre Bonnard pursued art at the École des Beaux-Arts and the Académie Julian (1888) in Paris. There, he met fellow art students Édouard Vuillard and Maurice Denis with whom he formed the Nabis (1892–99), a group of young painters under the leadership of Paul Sérusier who followed Paul Gauguin's ideas about representing things symbolically in strong patterns and color.

Shortly after 1900 Bonnard redirected his style of painting to more closely follow the Impressionist tradition, modified by his innate sense of decoration and design. He continued to use light to change the substance and color of form, but he preferred to paint in his studio rather than in the open air and structured his compositions with formal pattern. He so convincingly went beyond the limits of local color and the laws of natural perspective that in the "Terrace at Vernonnet" the boldness of his interpretation is barely noticeable. For example, we read the tree trunk that defines the foreground as a beautiful violet strip as well as a tree, and the foliage in the background merges into a tapestry of color.

Although Bonnard continued to paint the Paris he loved, he developed a passion for the countryside and the seasons. The daily intimacies of family life add warmth to his art (he was also referred to as an "Intimist"), but there is nothing casual in his presentation. He believed that in landscape the human figure "should be part of the background against which it is placed," and more than any other of the older Impressionist painters he deliberately controlled the viewer's eye. He knew exactly what he wanted us to see, but he didn't want everything in the picture to be evident at first glance — more concentrated looking was expected.

It is probably Bonnard's last view of the terrace at his house in the Seine valley between Normandy and the Île de France, not far from Giverny, the home of his friend Claude Monet. He purchased the property in 1912 and used it as a subject for his painting until 1939. Elements of his comfortable bourgeois life are in evidence: fruit, wine, company. The gaze of the central figure is rather enigmatic, as is the gesture of the woman at the right. The main figures concentrate on their inner world rather than on their companions or the tasks in which they are engaged. Bonnard painted a shaded corner of the irregularly shaped, raised terrace that surrounded the house. Only a banister indicates the steps that descended to the sprawling garden below. In the painting the terrace serves as a stage, with the garden rising like a curtain beyond. Toward the end of his life Bonnard approached abstraction, increasingly subordinating the subject in order to obtain the desired effects of color and light.