Pierre Bonnard, Siesta (La Sieste) (1900). Collection National Gallery of Victoria. Felton Bequest, 1949. On display, NGV International, Melbourne. WHEN Pierre Bonnard painted his lover in a languorous pose on the bed in their apartment, he created one of his most sensual images.
Siesta, painted in 1900, was renowned at the time in Parisian artistic circles, and was once owned by Gertrude Stein. Later, it was bought by art historian Kenneth Clark, and in 1949 it was acquired for the National Gallery of Victoria, where it is one of its most popular works.
The subject of the painting, Marthe Boursin, was Bonnard’s muse. He had seen her on a tram in 1893 and persuaded her to be his model. They lived together for 30 years and married in 1925.
Boursin is the subject of many of Bonnard’s most intimate paintings.
In Siesta, she is depicted in a pose made famous by a classical sculpture in the Louvre, Sleeping Hermaphroditus.
When I visit NGV International, I am shown Siesta by the gallery’s curator, international art, Laurie Benson, who says that although it is a domestic scene it is a “highly erotic painting”.
“This is clearly a post-coital woman who is the subject of the painting and it is about her sexuality and her life,” Benson says. “It was painted at an interesting time in feminist history, when women were being attacked quite strongly in France.
“Unmarried couples were being vilified in the press, so this was a political statement as well as a wonderfully erotic image.”
Benson suggests that, although “slightly voyeuristic”, there is dignity to the figure. “The way the figure is posed, it is so relaxed, we don’t feel like we are invading so much. It is just a beautiful painting of a fantastic, gorgeous figure in total repose. It is more of an intimate view of a relationship than anything smutty.”
Bonnard’s Siesta is also part of a new initiative at the NGV called Art as Therapy. Philosophers and authors Alain de Botton and John Armstrong have identified more than 60 works from the gallery’s collection to be included in the free, self-guided, specially curated program.
De Botton and Armstrong believe that art has a therapeutic effect and can help solve a range of personal problems — but to do so you need to look at art in a different way.
Armstrong tells me that Siesta was chosen for the Art as Therapy program because it is a picture he has loved for a long time, and because it is a popular image. It shows an ideal of relaxation and ease and sexual simplicity, and a lot of life is not like that.
He says the painting is a reminder about the anxieties associated with work and relaxation. He believes we need encouragement to relax; that we can go to bed after lunch and still be a good person.
“It shows, in a very beautiful way, an ideal that a lot of people, myself included, find hard to reach in life,” Armstrong says.
“It shows a contented state of relaxation and sexual ease. It’s moving, l think, because we are rarely quite like that. So often we are under pressure from work or relationship difficulties. But also because lying around in the afternoon has very little prestige.
“We don’t think it’s important. Where I come from it’s seen as self-indulgent, lazy and wasteful. Instead, you should be getting on with something; weeding the garden, working, cleaning the kitchen, catching up on emails.”
Oil on canvas 109cm x 132cm