Pierre Bon­nard: A Colour­ful En­chanter


Bon­nard (1867 – 1947) has been crit­i­cised for paint­ing only for the plea­sure of the eyes and his tableaux just nice to look at. These crit­ics are not com­pletely wrong about their ap­peal, but a more at­ten­tive ex­am­i­na­tion of Bon­nard’s work will lead to sur­pris­ingly deeper dis­cov­er­ies. Where his colours are blamed for keep­ing his can­vas shal­low, colour ac­tu­ally was the artist’s con­cern through­out his life, un­til he reached an ex­cel­lence that made him one of the great­est colourists of Mod­ern art.

The ex­e­cu­tion of the French pain­ter’s work looks easy and merely dec­o­ra­tive, but with scru­tiny the ef­fect of the short, com­plex touches has depth and sen­si­tiv­ity, bor­der­ing on the spir­i­tual, and the lu­mi­nos­ity gives vi­tal­ity and life, al­lure and en­chant­ment. He reached the stage of sim­pli­fy­ing forms and elim­i­nat­ing de­tails, which he re­garded as dis­tract­ing. He el­e­vated the com­mon daily ac­tiv­i­ties, like pick­ing ap­ples, to a ges­ture of unit­ing man and na­ture; not see­ing be­yond the beau­ti­ful colours is to miss on the essence.

In the early 1890s, Bon­nard founded with a group of artists who stud­ied to­gether in art school the ‘Nabis’, which be­came an avant-garde post-im­pres­sion­ist move­ment. These re­bel­lious artists worked mainly on in­ti­mate do­mes­tic scenes and colour­ful and dec­o­ra­tive com­po­si­tions. They were greatly in­flu­enced by Paul Gau­guin and his strong colours. The ‘Nabis’, Ara­bic and He­brew for prophets, ide­alised daily ac­tiv­i­ties and wanted to lib­er­ate art from the re­al­ism of Im­pres­sion­ism, favour­ing emo­tion over ob­ser­va­tion, giv­ing their work a spir­i­tual pen­chant.

The ‘Nabis’ had a short life and broke up around 1900, as the move­ment seemed to be go­ing against the Mod­ernist cur­rent that was led by Pablo Pi­casso with his nar­ra­tive paint­ings, his po­lit­i­cal sym­bol­ism and his in­volve­ment in the war and the events sur­round­ing him. The Mod­ern move­ment, in­clud­ing Ab­stract Art, Ex­pres­sion­ism, Cu­bism and Fau­vism, made the ‘Nabis’ seem con­ser­va­tive and not with the times.

Af­ter the dis­mem­ber­ment of the ‘Nabis’, Bon­nard passed through a pe­riod of search­ing. Through colour, he tried to ex­press his ideas and started a di­a­logue be­tween colour and light, which be­came his metaphor. He painted elu­sive char­ac­ters that were lonely, ill at ease or un­able to com­mu­ni­cate, yet also showed mo­ments of ten­der­ness and sen­ti­men­tal­ity, us­ing ar­ti­fi­cial light, gas lamps and the sun to pro­duce the ef­fect he wanted. His in­ven­tive­ness also showed in his choice of an­gles, paint­ing from far or close-ups, from above or look­ing down. He also used the mir­ror game where his sit­ter would be look­ing at her­self in the mir­ror, show­ing the re­flec­tion of her re­flec­tion from a mir­ror placed be­hind her.

The in­ti­macy that the artist cher­ished in his pri­vate life ex­tended to in­clude his bath­room se­ries. He cre­ated in­nu­mer­able works with his model and muse Marthe,

who be­came his wife in 1925 af­ter 30 years to­gether. He painted her in the bath­tub, dry­ing her­self, scrub­bing her­self or just look­ing at her­self in the mir­ror, taken from dif­fer­ent an­gles. The warm colours that Bon­nard used in the bath­room paint­ings gave the model al­lure and eroti­cism. Re­nee Mon­chati, another mistress and model of Bon­nard com­mit­ted sui­cide a few weeks af­ter he got mar­ried.

Marthe was very present in his work, other than in nude com­po­si­tions, he painted her seated in the kitchen, set­ting the ta­ble, eat­ing and gar­den­ing. He al­ways de­picted her as a young woman even when she grew old.

Bon­nard’s por­traits com­bine dif­fer­ent styles and emo­tions, and those of his fam­ily and friends show love and care while with other peo­ple, he could be crit­i­cal, witty or sar­cas­tic. As for his self-por­traits, which were in­tended for his eyes only, he took lib­er­ties like por­tray­ing him­self as a boxer, in a rage or as a sage, self ef­fac­ing or self-mock­ing. He had the tal­ent to de­pict like­ness and see dis­tress, anx­i­ety or dis­com­fort on the faces of his mod­els.

The artist’s land­scapes were also in­ti­mate, and in later years, were taken from in­door, look­ing to­ward the fields or his gar­den. Some are taken from his din­ing room of fam­ily mem­bers, or a view from his stu­dio with mi­mosa trees in full bloom. These works are blurred to give the im­pres­sion of dreamy un­re­al­ity.

Bon­nard suc­ceeded in mak­ing ex­tra­or­di­nary use of colour and light, giv­ing his sub­jects lu­mi­nos­ity. He wrote on his re­la­tion­ship with colour: “There is al­ways colour; it has yet to be­come light”. This was his goal, es­pe­cially in his later years, blur­ring his paint­ings to dis­tance him­self to be, if he wanted, sar­donic, witty, dreamy or im­per­sonal.

Bon­nard did not paint from life, but made draw­ings or pho­to­graphs of his sub­jects, and did the work in his stu­dio. He needed the mem­ory of the sub­ject and not a di­rect view, say­ing that paint­ing from re­al­ity dis­tracted him from mak­ing the paint­ing an en­tity on its own.

Although Bon­nard avoided public ex­po­sure or at­ten­tion, he sold well dur­ing his life. He had an in­de­pen­dent na­ture and while aware of the con­tem­po­rary move­ments of the 20th cen­tury, his volup­tuous colours, and poetic al­lu­sions, his in­de­pen­dent spirit and his re­sis­tance to new cur­rents made him unique among mod­ern artists.

The Ter­race at Ver­non

The Stu­dio with Me­mosa

The Boxer (Por­trait of the Artist)

Din­ing Room in the Coun­try

The Ta­ble

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