“It’s not a matter of painting life. It’s a matter of giving life to painting,” Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947) wrote in his last year. More than a decade earlier, in 1932, he noted in a daybook:
"Show nature when it’s beautiful. Everything has its moment of beauty. Beauty is the fulfillment of seeing. Seeing is fulfilled by simplicity and order. Simplicity and order are produced by dividing legible surfaces, grouping compatible colors, etc".
These sentiments were well illustrated by “Bonnard: The Experience of Seeing,” a tightly focused but comprehensive exhibition at Acquavella Galleries that allowed us to explore some of the painter’s major themes from 1916 until his last years. Each of the twenty-one included works was vivid evidence of Bonnard’s desire to give life to painting, his belief that everything has its moment of beauty, and his quest for simplicity and order, manifest as visions of banal domesticity translated into meditations on the power of color to stir our emotions.
By David Ambrose, May 2023
Realism forsook for ecstatic color in an exhibit of late works by the early modern painter.
Bonnard: The Experience of Seeing is a title that seems at first blush more straightforward than the show it describes, now on view at Acquavella Gallery. For starters, none of the paintings are direct transcriptions of what Bonnard saw. He didn’t paint these lush interiors, landscapes, figures and still lifes—at once abundant and half-empty, flat yet filled with air—from life. Bonnard made copious small drawings, sometimes hardly more than jotted notes, then started painting on canvases he’d tacked to the walls of his studio. It was there, in the commingling of memory and imagination, that the scenes took shape. On second reading, “experience of seeing” shrewdly says as much: we are not partaking of what Bonnard saw, but an artifice he presented that suggests what it was like to see what he saw. If this sounds a bit like an intellectual rabbit hole, consider it a modern corrective to a period of neglect. In the years after his death in 1947, Bonnard was shelved as a diluted post-impressionist, a mere maker of pretty pictures.
The distance between what Bonnard saw and what he painted is wide enough to have allowed a river of scholarly interpretation. The painter gave tacit permission for later generations to puzzle out his intentions, for he left little written insight and, according to scholar Sarah Whitfield, “he avoided theories and theoreticians, taking no part in the discussions enjoyed by painters who were close friends….” Bonnard’s oft quoted explanation of his process was short and tantalizing. “I have all my subjects to hand, I go and look at them. I take notes. Then I go home. And before I start painting I reflect, I dream.”
Bonnard’s dream began in Fontenay-aux-Roses, outside Paris in 1867. Despite interests in art and literature, he studied law and earned an attorney’s license in 1888 to satisfy his father’s demands. Bonnard served briefly in the military and continued taking classes at the École des Beaux-Arts and the Académie Julian, where he met and became studio mates with Maurice Denis and Édouard Vuillard. They formed the avant-garde group of artists known as the Nabis, recognized for intimate domestic scenes painted in decorative patterns of color. Their ethos was summed up by Denis’s manifesto:
We should remember that a picture, before it is a battle horse or a naked woman or some sort of narrative, is basically a flat surface covered with paints put together in a certain order.
Beginning in the 1890s, Bonnard illustrated books, including a collection of Symbolist poetry by Paul Verlaine. Around the turn of the century his attention turned to a theme in the vein of Toulouse-Lautrec or Sickert, the female observed semi-dressed or nude in darkened low-rent quarters. By 1908, he was painting landscapes with a brighter palette in a larger scale, and had made his first extended visit to the south of France at Saint-Tropez. He kept apartments in Paris and a home in Vernonnet in northern France, and regularly rented homes whose interiors and gardens served as subjects. In 1925, Bonnard moved to Le Cannet, near Cannes on the French Riviera. The show at Acquavella derives primarily from this last, color saturated period of his career.
The gateway drug of the exhibition for me is La côte d’azur [The Riviera], a view that overlooks a semi-tropical landscape, leading to a distant sliver of ocean and mountains beyond. In some ways it’s a traditional landscape; one level overlaps the next, and the strongest value contrasts are reserved for the foreground. But sustained viewing reveals several oddities. The foliage shapes are not always clearly defined—we’ll see the same thing in Bonnard’s interiors, which one will find either poetic or maddening. Odder still, and typical of his color inventions, is the overall temperature of the landscape. Here’s a picture of shimmering heat, painted with an abundance of blues and white. The effect is one we return to time and again in Bonnard’s paintings, that of fact converted to fantasy.
La table devant la fenêtre [Table in Front of the Window] and Grand salle à manger sur le jardin [Dining Room on the Garden], both depict the same interior. Both are grounded by a multitude of vertical lines (window frames, tablecloths) offset by ellipses (bowls of fruit). Each stretches perceptual logic. One looks out upon a sunlit garden, the design anchored by the center of the window frame, the interior revealed in a flat light. The latter canvas shows the garden in the evening, the interior warmly illuminated by an unseen source. Porte-fenêtre ouverte, Vernon [Open French Door, Vernon] is one of several versions Bonnard painted of the dining room at Vernonnet. In these works, too, the color changes are more about the imperatives of the paintings themselves than a response to optics or external phenomena. The door, violet in the Acquavella version, shows up in other canvases as bright yellow or pale blue-green. The vision is rooted in the harmony, or dissonance, between the interior and outside spaces. The design elements that once held his compositions in place could by the 1920s barely contain the artist’s resplendent imagination.
More credible is the space Coupe de fruits [Still Life with a Bowl of Fruit], ablaze with the yellows and oranges of artificial light. The bowl and its contents are anchored in shadow, but even a straightforward still life provided some opportunity for messing around; the stripes on the table cloth change direction in shadow. Bonnard took a few pages from Cézanne, though one suspects he was being impish as much as answering a call for pictorial structure. His sense of humor manifested most notably in the placement of pets at the margins of his canvases, as in La salle à manger, fruits et bassets [The Dining Room, Fruit and Basset Hounds].
Running like a thread through Bonnard’s work is the domestic feminine presence. In the Parisian paintings around 1900, his longtime companion Marthe was model and inspiration for erotic reverie. Later, she would be central to Bonnard’s most famous paintings, women bathing and at their toilettes, represented here by Grand nu à la baignoire [Large Nude in the Bath], her pale skin harmonized with the sun washed wall and tiles. Present in hundreds of paintings, either peripheral to the interiors or as the focal point in the bath and boudoir, Marthe remains a mystery to us. She suffered from chronically poor health and retreated into isolation. An unsympathetic image of her was probably fostered by the efforts of Bonnard’s family to retain full control of the artist’s work. More enigmatic is Renée Monchaty, the artist’s mistress. The two women appear together in Jeunes femmes au jardin ou La nappe rayée (Renée Monchaty et Marthe Bonnard) [Young Women in the Garden (Renée Monchaty and Marthe Bonnard) or The Striped Tablecloth], painted in the early 1920s. Luminous in the shadows, Renée turns toward us while Marthe, all but cut off at the lower right hand corner, faces her. The much younger Renée had temporarily usurped Marthe to become Bonnard’s fiancée. At about the time of this painting and after more than thirty years together, Bonnard and Marthe were suddenly married, and Renée took her own life. Years later and near the end of his life, Bonnard reworked the canvas.
It is simplistic to see Bonnard’s paintings as representing eternal summertime. If he processed emotions through color, then the juxtapositions of color Bonnard chose may be appreciated for their unsettling qualities as well as their pleasing saturation. The radiant surfaces, striped tablecloth, and violent color contrasts of Jeunes femmes au jardin ou La nappe rayée are not innocuous. Implicit are the tensions that would resolve one relationship and prove lethal to another. But the initial take on Bonnard’s work allowed no room for storm clouds. Just after his death, Bonnard’s nephew wrote:
He only wanted to paint happy things. In his works there is nothing of sadness, or suffering, just the merest trace of melancholy and then merely as an accompaniment to feminine grace.
In the postwar period Bonnard’s work was seen as frivolous, yet he left an intriguing hint about his intentions. “I’m trying to do what I have never done — give the impression one has on entering a room: one sees everything and at the same time nothing.” A reevaluation was possible. Rather than a weakness, his sensitivity to color changes could thus be evidence of optical and psychological nuance.
The theme of Bonnard’s paintings emulating the experience of an instantaneous visual impression caught fire. Whitfield has written that “The gap that exists between seeing an object and recognising it comes across very strongly in the way certain objects in a Bonnard painting remain utterly mysterious.” John Elderfield, former Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, got deep enough into the weeds of optical perception to fairly well lose any but the most determined reader. A painting by Bonnard
may be thought to represent a memory of the perception of substance on the part of a beholder who was not in a fixed position before that substance, presented to other beholders who are necessarily more or less fixed in position before the representation.
A reassessment of Bonnard’s painting was in order, though one suspects the intellectual platform has overcompensated, given that Bonnard was essentially an intuitive, poetic artist. The idea of motion, of the viewer’s fluid perception and fragmented viewpoints wasn’t new. Impressionism was based on a modern way of seeing that also owed to Japanese prints. Degas and other artists exploited off-balance designs and peripheral figures most effectively. Nor is there anything extraordinary in the process; artists have always used drawings as source material for paintings. Moreover, all painting relies on remembered perception. It’s a mistake to assume that painting in front of the motif eliminates the use of memory—every time the artist shifts their gaze away from the subject to the paper or canvas, they are working from a recollection. There is always a gap between seeing and recognising an object. Every artist is utilizing memory.
The claims on Bonnard’s behalf are neither exceptional nor even very unusual. We can temper the insistence on these points without invalidating Bonnard’s gift, which was a genius for color as an autonomous vehicle that transformed the banalities of domestic life into dreamscapes. A last anecdote, from late in his life, presents Bonnard as a spiritual heir to Monet, who as a student tired of making copies in the Louvre and preferred painting the view outside. During a visit to the Louvre, the elderly Bonnard exclaimed, “The most beautiful things in museums are the windows.” Well, except for the Bonnards.
Acquavella Galleries is presenting The Experience of Seeing,
an exhibition of more than 20 paintings by Pierre Bonnard,
most loaned by U.S. museums and private collectors. Created
during the French artist’s last three decades, they feature
his visionary use of color in a range of genres, including still
lifes, nudes, interiors, and landscapes. Together they reassert
Bonnard’s pioneering role as a modernist, rather than as the
“post-impressionist” he is too often considered to have been.
A dreamy selection of his canvases, all made in the last thirty years of his life, balances lyricism with what might, at first, seem like the more hesitant qualities of Bonnard’s dappled visions—his stitch-like brushstrokes, slightly off-kilter compositions, and dissolving silhouettes. There are tabletop still-lifes, landscapes, and nudes, but best of all are the indoor-outdoor scenes, which blur those categories.