Pierre BONNARD | Woman dozing on a bed (Indolent woman) [Femme assoupie sur un lit (L'indolente)]

Pierre BONNARD
France 1867 – 1947

Woman dozing on a bed (Indolent woman)
[Femme assoupie sur un lit (L'indolente)]
1899
oil on canvas
canvas 96.0 (h) x 106.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchase, ex-collection Félix Fénéon 1947
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Thierry Le Mage

While studying law—he was sworn in as a barrister in 1889—Bonnard had begun attending the Académie Julian, where he became friends with Sérusier, Denis and Paul Ranson. In 1888, Sérusier showed him his Gauguin-influenced The Aven at the Bois d’Amour—later rechristened The talisman, in acknowledgement of the quasi-religious status this work held for the group of artists who became known as the Nabis. Bonnard himself would be inspired by seeing Gauguin’s work at the famous Cafe Volpini exhibition in 1889.

With the commercial success of his 1891 poster for France-Champagne, Bonnard was able to turn his back on law to pursue art full-time. A key moment in his life and his art was his meeting the subject of the present work, the enigmatic twenty-four year old Maria (Marthe) Boursin. As Whitfield points out:

By the time she met Bonnard on a Paris street in 1893 she had left home, moved to Paris, found a job and changed her name to Marthe de Meligny. She had so effectively erased her past that not even Bonnard learnt her real name until their marriage in 1925, nearly twenty years after they began living together.1

Despite her working-class background and difficult temperament, Marthe became Bonnard’s muse, and the subject of many of his most enduring works. The present painting, showing Marthe lying provocatively on a bed, is one of a number of paintings devoted to the same subject. There is, for example, a small study dating from 1897–98 and another larger version from 1898 or 1899. Similarly there is a small crayon and graphite study for the illustration to page 100 of Paul Verlaine’s poetry collection Parallèlement 1900, which Ambroise Vollard had commissioned Bonnard to illustrate. In the published edition, however, Marthe is posed a little more demurely—the tangled sheet obscures her sex, perhaps as a concession to the fact that Parallèlement was aimed at a broader audience.

There is no coyness in the present version of Bonnard’s painting, at least in terms of pose. While the title Woman dozing on a bed might indicate a moment of erotic slumber, the pose itself—Marthe’s hand cradles one breast, and her left leg, with its foot resting on her right thigh, is splayed so as to suggest it was raised moments before and has just now fallen open to display her sex—acts as a powerful erotic invitation. Woman dozing on a bed shows, then, a moment of mutual contemplation—Marthe presents to us, and to her lover Bonnard, her languorous, indolent sensuality, while Bonnard’s contemplative presence is indicated by the skein of smoke wafting from his pipe towards her sex.

While Marthe features in many of Bonnard’s early works, this is one of his first paintings in which he shows her completely nude and as such is one of the great Intimist masterpieces of the period.

Mark Henshaw

Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009

  1. See Sarah Whitfield and John Elderfield, Bonnard, London: Tate Gallery Publishing 1998, p. 15. At the time of their meeting, Marthe also claimed to be only 16.