French Painter and Printmaker
Born: October 3, 1867 - Fontenay-aux-Roses, France
Died: January 23, 1947 - Le Cannet, France
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|The History and Use-case of Modern Art|
"Art is not nature.. There was a lot more to be got out of color."
Pierre Bonnard was a member of the Symbolist group of painters known as Les Nabis ("prophets" or "seers"), and so subscribed to the Nabi doctrine of abandoning three-dimensional modeling in favor of flat color areas. However, although Bonnard was a member of this group, he was not interested in obscure Symbolist subject matter and was not a mystic. Instead, he was satisfied - even fascinated and delighted by - the scenes of simple daily life around him. Because of this, he has been called an "intimist."
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Dining Room in the Country (1913)
Bonnard was fascinated with different levels of perspective and with the tricks of perspective. In this painting there are no real space-defining objects - the chair and the washstand blend into the wall. The composition is a "corner composition," moving diagonally across the table, treated as a vertical plane, through the doorway to the woman to the landscape. Then there is a cross-diagonal movement through the chair to the washstand. This spatial movement is largely dependent on color; color is the primary director of this painting. Our eye is carried from the indoors to the outdoors via the red color. The door is the same color as the landscape, the table, and the crockery. Bonnard also contrasts the warm orange-red colors of the interior and the cool whites of the outdoors - a contrast accompanied by a heightened quality of the light.
Typically, Bonnard's figures appear less psychologically complex than the figures of Vuillard. As in this painting, the figure seems withdrawn - functioning as a mere prop - and is, in fact, psychologically recessive. That she seems to lack tangibility and psychological presence is borne out of the fact that although she is outdoors, the artist has placed her within a shadow and painted her in the same color as the interior wall. Bonnard is less interested in the specificity of the person, and instead, sets up a very complex spatial organization emphasizing that which is indoors and that which is outdoors, thus heightening Impressionist color and harnessing it to the service of linking figure to environment rather than recording a specific time of day. As is characteristic of the artist's work, the emphasis is on embedding the figure into the sensuous environment of both the depicted scene and the painted reality.
Childhood, Early Training
Bonnard was born in Fontenay-aux-Roses, Hauts-de-Seine, on October 3, 1867. He was the son of a prominent official of the French Ministry of War, and upon the insistence of his father, Bonnard studied law at the Sorbonne from 1885 to 1888. He graduated with a Baccalaureate, distinguishing himself in the Classics, and briefly practiced as a barrister in a government office. However, he had also attended art classes at the École des Beaux-Arts, where he failed to win the Prix de Rome (which would have allowed him to study at the French Academy in Rome), and so transferred to the Académie Julian in 1889, where he met Maurice Denis, Paul Sérusier, Ker-Xavier Roussel, Paul Ranson, Félix Vallotton, and Édouard Vuillard. He soon decided to become an artist, and in 1890 shared a studio in Montmartre with Denis and Vuillard. Later they were joined by theatrical producer Aurélian Lugné-Poe with whom Bonnard collaborated on productions for the Théâtre de l'Oeuvre in Paris. Thus, still in his twenties, Bonnard joined Les Nabis, a group of young artists committed to creating work of a symbolic and spiritual nature. His friends nicknamed him a "highly Nipponized Nabi" in reference to the Japanese prints that influenced him. This influence had been termed "Japonisme" as of 1872 and had also been ascribed to the work of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.
In 1891, Bonnard met Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and began showing his work at the annual exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants. In the same year, Bonnard also began his association with La Revue Blanche for which he and his friend Vuillard designed frontispieces. His lithographs were published in 1895 by the well-known art dealer Ambroise Vollard, and the same year he designed a stained glass window for Louis Comfort Tiffany. His first one-person show was at Galerie Durand-Ruel in 1896. He illustrated poet Paul Verlaine's book of Symbolist poems Parallèlement in 1900. Around this time, he painted landscapes in the style of the Impressionists and Paul Gauguin in the countryside between Paris and Normandy.
As of 1907, Bonnard traveled extensively though Europe and North Africa, although these excursions seemed not to have affected his art to any great extent. He left Paris in 1910 for the south of France. Aside from a few war-themed sketches, there are no traces of the war's effect on his art either. Bonnard was described by historians and his own friends as a man of "quiet temperament," and one who was unobtrusively independent. His often complex compositions - typically of sunlit interiors of rooms and gardens populated with friends and family members - are both narrative and autobiographical.
His wife, whom he had met in 1893 as Maria de Meligny, was an ever-present subject over the course of several decades. It was not until they married 32 years later in 1925 that Bonnard became aware that her real name was Maria Boursin. He also painted several self-portraits, landscapes, street scenes, and many still lifes depicting flowers and fruit. His habit was to work on numerous canvases simultaneously, which he tacked onto the walls of his small studio; in fact, Bonnard had one of the smallest studios in the history of modern art. In this way he could more freely determine the shape of a painting: as he noted, "it would bother me if my canvases were stretched onto a frame. I never know in advance what dimensions I am going to choose."
Bonnard had moved to Le Cannet near Cannes in the south of France as of 1926. In his old age, he returned to the dazzling light and color of his earlier work. In 1938, there was a major exhibition of his work along with Vuillard's at the Art Institute of Chicago. During World War II, he maintained his residence in Le Cannet, continuing there as a recluse even after his wife died in 1942. Shortly before his death he completed the large mural Saint Francis Healing the Sick (1947) for the Church of Assy. He finished his last painting, The Almond Tree in Blossom (1947), a week before his death in his cottage on La Route de Serra Capeou near Le Cannet on the French Riviera. The Museum of Modern Art in New York organized a posthumous retrospective of Bonnard's work in 1948, although originally it was meant to be a celebration of the artist's 80th birthday. Although Bonnard avoided public attention, his work sold well during his life.
At the time of his death, Bonnard's reputation had already been eclipsed by subsequent avant-garde developments in the art world. Reviewing a retrospective of Bonnard's work in Paris in 1947, the critic Christian Zervos assessed the artist in terms of his relationship to Impressionism and found him wanting: he noted, "in Bonnard's work Impressionism becomes insipid and falls into decline." Henri Matisse responded by saying; "I maintain that Bonnard is a great artist for our time and, naturally, for posterity." Thus, Bonnard has often been identified as a late Impressionist, but this label falls short of his contributions to painting. Bonnard's work is, rather, characterized by a unique use of color that enriched and heightened the Impressionist palette. His use of overlapping planes of color seems even to prefigure the Cubists' use of planes penetrating one another.
Bonnard has also been cited for his unique expression of wit in and through painting. In a 2009 review of Bonnard in The New Republic, Jed Perl saw in Bonnard's work a "quality that might be characterized as perceptual wit - an instinct for what will work in a painting. Almost invariably he recognizes the precise point where his voluptuousness may be getting out of hand, where he needs to introduce an ironic note. Bonnard's wit has everything to do with the eccentric nature of his compositions. He finds it funny to sneak a figure into a corner, or have a cat staring out at the viewer. His metaphoric caprices have a comic edge, as when he turns a figure into a pattern in the wallpaper. And when he imagines a basket of fruit as a heap of emeralds and rubies and diamonds, he does so with the panache of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat."
Influences and Connections
Artists, Friends, Movements
Artists, Friends, Movements
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Useful Resources on Pierre Bonnard
| Pierre Bonnard |
By Evelyn Benesch, Ulf Kuster, Pierre Bonnard
| Pierre Bonnard: Early and Late |
By Elizabeth Hutton Turner, Pierre Bonnard, Nancy Wolsk
| Interpreting Bonnard: Color and Light |
By Nicholas Watkins
| Pierre Bonnard: The Work of Art, Suspending Time |
By Yves-Alain Bois, Pierre Bonnard
| Pierre Bonnard: The Late Still Lifes and Interiors |
By Dita Amory, Jack Flam, Rémi Labrusse, Jacqueline Munck, Rika Burnham
| Le Musée Bonnard || Pierre Bonnard Retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art |
| Pierre Bonnard at the Tate Modern || Pierre Bonnard at the National Gallery of Australia |
| Pierre Bonnard on the BBC |
| Luminous Legacy |
By Rachel Spence
| Complicated Bliss |
By Jed Perl
| The Violent Beauty of Color |
By Lance Esplund
| Bonnard Late in Life, Searching for the Light |
By Roberta Smith
| Pierre Bonnard Retrospective at the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris |
By Michael Kimmelman
| Bathroom Beauty: Pierre Bonnard's Voyeuristic Obsession |
By Christopher Benfey
| Pierre Bonnard: In Search of Pure Color |
1984 Documentary on Bonnard
| Vermilion in the Orange Shadows: Bonnard's Late Painting |
Lecture by Dita Amory at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
| Bonnard and Escapism |
Lecture by Julian Bell at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
| Pierre Bonnard, In a Southern Garden |
Discussion of Bonnard's Painting at the Museum of Fine Arts Bern