Progression of Art
This lithograph launched Bonnard's career from law into art; in 1889, he won a competition to design a poster advertising France Champagne, which led him to create this illustration. A seemingly frivolous female looks over her shoulder, holding a fan in one hand and her magical glass of champagne in the other. There is a witty play on the oneness of the young girl with the bubbles of champagne. Champagne bubbles, expressed through an agitated line that alternates between thick and thin, create both a literal and symbolic feeling of froth. The bubbles engulf the woman and she becomes part of the total pattern. The "C" of the word "Champagne" relates visually to the arc of her arm such that compositional elements reinforce the gaiety of the woman and of champagne itself. The work is characterized by continuous, undulating outlines, flattened form, flat poster color, distorted perspective and proportion, purposeful distortion of perspective and proportion, and the elimination of detail and decoration. The influences of Japanese prints is visible here and, perhaps even more so, that of Jules Cheret's prints. France Champagne, which was to influence Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, is an early expression of the Art Nouveau aesthetic as well as an early use of the pretty girl to advertise a product.
Lithograph - Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris
Promenade des nourrices, fries des fiacres (Nannies Promenade, Frieze of Carriages)
This four-paneled work is characterized by its understatement, economy of line, and rhythm. Bonnard places his figures asymmetrically and balances them against the empty space. The decorative use of silhouette is influenced by both the Art Nouveau style and of Japanese prints. Bonnard here employs a great economy of means - accomplishing many effects with only a few elements. An example of this would be the way the artist lets white function in multiple ways: it fills in the faces and it is worked into the figures' costumes. The animated linear arabesque of the dog functions in such a way as to suggest volume. Through the distortion of form for decorative effect, Bonnard has created a world of decorative unreality that asserts the two-dimensionality of the wall, thus uniting art and architecture.
Color lithograph - Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Woman Reclining on a Bed
This painting is a good example of Bonnard embedding his figure within an intimate surrounding. The artist employs a corner point of view from which we are allowed to view the figure, whose face is concealed in shadow. The brushwork is similar to that of the Impressionists, but the artist has created more of an intimate, moody atmosphere - almost an erotic one - with the viewer as voyeur. Furthermore, this is not the monumental or idealized nude that one might recognize from a Titian or Rubens: this nude distinguishes itself from other nudes of the time in its natural pose and lack of inhibition. In fact, Bonnard is often credited with the introduction of this "modern" nude.
Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Dining Room in the Country
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.
Bonnard's bathroom and environs are known to have been very simple, plain, and functional. But in Bonnard's numerous bath scenes, spaces and objects have their own mystery and mood. Locked in her environment, the figure (Madame Bonnard) - the un-idealized, "modern" nude - is at one with her surroundings. It is an intimate scene in both subject matter, and the way the light caresses the objects, exposes their surfaces and highlighting the contours of the flesh. In contrast to his earlier fin-de-siècle work, the artist reanimates the space and gives depth to the scene, using tiles to shape it and modeling objects to make them appear more sensuous and tangible. As is usual in Bonnard's work, color creates the dominant effect, as the artist manipulates the oranges of the body and floor and the mauve of the wall and the legs to produce an aesthetically pleasing effect. Bonnard also uses luminous colors to produce a sensuous effect - a kind of nostalgic recollection of beauty and of the mystery of life. Since Bonnard is known to have worked largely from memory, this would be recollection at a distance, with objects taking on psychological qualities. Some of Bonnard's bath scenes even recall passages in Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past (1913). Several influences present themselves here, beginning with that of the 17th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer in the rectilinear division of the surface and in the mosaic of sumptuous color that celebrates the little pleasures of life. The influence of Renoir's colors, brushwork, and heavy coloristic atmosphere is likewise evident. In fact, the painting would almost seem an Impressionist capturing of sunlight, except that the colors are more arbitrary and the space more compartmentalized than that of the Impressionists. Bonnard very carefully selects those objects upon which he wishes the viewer to focus. Some objects are intentionally out of focus, and some are intentionally in focus. Sometimes the figures even take a back seat to the objects. Rather than attempting the spontaneity of Impressionism, here Bonnard paints a figure performing a kind of habitual action - a figure in frozen permanence brought to mind through the act of memory acted upon by feeling.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
Landscape at Le Cannet
Without the title, one might read this painting as being totally abstract, emphasizing as it does the flat surface of the painting rather than any depth of landscape. Its brushy shape areas are reminiscent of the work of Gauguin. Bonnard's treatment of this landscape in the south of France reminds us that shape does not have to be seen with an outline around it; shapes can be read as mere changes of color as we see here. Painted just two years before his death, this painting serves as an example of Bonnard's late work and follows the stylistic trajectory of increasing abstraction similar to that of late Monet and the Impressionists. Furthermore, it is fitting close to his earlier association with the group of Les Nabis. Bonnard took Maurice Denis's words further than any other member of this group: "Remember, that a picture, before it is a picture of a battle horse, a nude woman, or some story, is essentially a flat surface covered in colors arranged in a certain order."
Oil on canvas - Musée Bonnard, Le Cannet