Pierre Bonnard - Biography and Legacy
French Painter and Printmaker
Le Cannet, France
Biography of Pierre Bonnard
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 of Japonism 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.
In 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 Marthe de Méligny, whom he had met in 1893, 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. It is said that she ran away from her home and lied about her age and status for many years. Nevertheless, she became the (sometimes) obsessive subject of his work, with him painting her as many as 385 times. He also took intimate photos of her that he would later incorporate into his paintings.
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."
In 1926, Bonnard had moved to Le Cannet near Cannes in the south of France. 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.
The Legacy of Pierre Bonnard
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."