Pierre BONNARD | Decorative panel: water games (The voyage) [Panneau décoratif: jeux d'eaux (Le voyage)]

France 1867 – 1947

Decorative panel: water games (The voyage)
[Panneau décoratif: jeux d'eaux (Le voyage)]
oil on canvas
canvas 248.5 (h) x 298.5 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchased with the assistance of the Fonds du Patrimoine 1996
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

In July 1906 Bonnard accompanied Misia, his friend, muse and patron, and her new husband, the millionaire press baron Alfred Edwards, on a pleasure trip on their yacht.1 Misia met Bonnard when she was married to Thadée Natanson, owner and editor of La Revue blanche (The White Review). Through Natanson, she encountered the modern artists, writers and musicians of Paris, including the Nabis—Bonnard, Denis, Roussel, Vuillard and Vallotton—the poets Paul Verlaine and Stéphane Mallarmé, and the composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. In 1905 Misia became the fourth of Alfred Edwards’ wives (he eventually had six). In August Bonnard began a commission for four large panels2 to decorate the Edwards’ dining room at 21 Quai Voltaire in Paris. The marriage was short however, as by December 1906 Edwards had fallen for a young actress, Geneviève Lantelme.3 So the commission, begun in harmony for husband and wife, ended in discord.

Bonnard’s large decorative internal borders, Rococo or Chinese in inspiration, feature magpies with strings of pearls, and cavorting monkeys. Magpies are gossips and thieves of shiny objects, while monkeys are lewd and ugly. The reference to the new lover and the old husband seems overt, especially since Misia told of a confrontation with her rival in which Lantelme asked for pearls, money—and Misia.4 The bright orange borders surround classical scenes of pleasure and sensory delights, where men, women and children in tunics swim and play in gardens or on the seashore. Like the lovers in Jean-Antoine Watteau’s Return from the island of Cythera 1717,5 this is a fantasy world of imagined immediate experience, existing in a limbo of memory and desire.

The four panels were finished for display at the Salon d’Automne in 1910, where they were reviewed favourably in L’Art décoratif by that severe critic of modern art, Louis Vauxcelles:

M. Bonnard is fantasy, instinct, ingenuous spontaneity, French charm, both tender and mischievous. He delights the eye with attenuated colour harmonies suggesting the tones of faded tapestries, and iridescent, pearly skin in semi-darkness.6

Vuillard attended the ‘evening party for Bonnard’s panels’7 held at Misia’s home on Christmas Day 1910, where her friends celebrated the fruits of Misia’s patronage.

Christine Dixon

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. I am indebted to Gloria Groom’s extensive research and commentary on these works, published in her exhibition catalogue Beyond the easel: decorative painting by Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis, and Roussel, 1890–1930, Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago 2001, pp. 173–77, and in her essay ‘Bonnard’s decorative style: shifting boundaries’, in Pierre Bonnard: observing nature, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia 2003, pp. 78–116.
  2. The other two panels are Landscape animated with bathers 1906–10, 251.5 x 470.0 cm, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, and After the flood 1906–10, 250.0 x 450.0 cm, Ikeda Museum of Twentieth Century Art, Tokyo.
  3. Misia divorced Edwards in 1909, and married the Spanish painter José Sert, who worked with Serge Diaghilev on Ballets Russes commissions. She is often referred to as Misia Sert.
  4. Groom, 2003, p. 100.