Context and Contribution
Pierre Bonnard’s distinction as an artist is, in part, that his work cannot be easily categorised — it is not religious, or symbolic, or expressionist, or abstract, or surrealist, but remains quietly what it is. Nor does Bonnard force us to take notice with a manifesto, or a theory, or dramatic or bizarre depictions.
A keen observer of the life around him, Bonnard was alert to the changing moods of nature and of people and their surroundings. These ‘adventures of the optic nerve’, as he called his observations, were translated into carefully structured compositions filled with paint strokes of luminous colour. Rather than imposing himself on nature and reordering it in a radical manner, Bonnard opened himself to nature, observing its intricate detail.
He was particularly interested in intimate moments in which people are involved in a domestic setting — capturing them sitting in chairs, dressing, looking in the mirror, playing with children or pets, in the garden — innocently and unself-consciously immersed in their everyday world. This aspect of his work, and similar work by his friend Edouard Vuillard, was called Intimisme.
Bonnard’s working methods
For his compositions Bonnard often used quite a strong geometric framework filled in with all-over patterns painted in a deceptively rough or careless manner. What underlying order there is becomes disorder, everything seems to quaver or shimmer. He showed little regard for the laws of perspective, modelling and even anatomy. Gustave Geffroy, writing in Le Journal, in 1899 noted that he painted everything ‘with an apparent negligence, a kind of disorder, which soon reveals the very delightful spirit of a painter who can harmonize’.
Bonnard did not simply record the world around him. One of his fellow Nabis, Jan (later Dom Willibrord) Verkade, said of Bonnard that: ‘he loved to work by instinct: with impassioned brush strokes, controlled only remotely by intellect and will’. That observation may help to explain Bonnard’s adoption of awkward placement, angular motifs and abrupt cropping, and his occasional distortion and exaggeration of the forms of his models.
Also contributing to his departures from the strictly visible is the rather astonishing fact that Bonnard worked exclusively from memory. While he observed everything, with his camera, or in his diary or on scraps of paper that he carried with him, when it came to painting even his portraits were done in the absence of the model. Most surprisingly of all, Marthe, his partner and model for almost 50 years, seldom formally posed for him.
Defending this work method, Bonnard explained that having the actual subject in front of him would distract him from his work. His art was always the result of an initial attraction to something: ‘If this attraction, this primary conception fades away, the painter becomes dominated solely by the motif, the object before him. From that moment he ceases to create his own painting.’
Another unconventional aspect to Bonnard’s process was his selection of unusually shaped canvases. Seldom did he choose the standard rectangular format, often selecting elongated or square shapes. He painted on unstretched canvas pinned to the wall of whatever room he was using as a studio — sometimes it was a hotel room — and he often worked on more than one canvas at the same time. He liked the canvas to have a larger dimension than the picture he was planning. Stretchers, he believed, imposed a limit to the composition.
Characteristics of Bonnard’s painting style
‘The main subject is the surface’, wrote Bonnard, ‘which has its colour, its laws, over and above the objects.’ He sought to extend the Impressionist’s experiments, interpreting nature through more structured compositions and exploiting the expressive characteristics of colour. The sense of mystery and secrecy in many of his paintings, where the figures are turned away or their faces are in shadow, links back to Bonnard’s early association with the Nabis — a group of young artists, one of whose aims was to explore spiritual meaning in their art.
Reflecting on the lasting inspiration on his art of Japanese woodblock prints, Bonnard commented: ‘I realized that colour could express everything … with no need for relief or texture. I understood that it was possible to translate light, shapes and character by colour alone, without the need for values’ — in other words, without the need for tones of light and dark, or shading and the modelling of forms.
What is significantly different about Bonnard’s paintings is that they take time to view — as they took time to paint. Often lacking a focal point, the activity may take place on the periphery. He rejected standard approaches — a landscape may have no horizon or sky, but be like a room enclosed by textured foliage.
From about 1900 until his death in 1947 Bonnard’s style hardly changed. He appeared to ignore the theories and schools that surrounded him — such as Fauvism, Cubism, Dada and Surrealism. It has recently been said that: ‘with the growing exuberance, colour and sensuality of his paintings, he confounded the history of modernism with radical unradicalism’ (James Panero).
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The Pierre Bonnard works on this page are reproduced with the permission of|
ADAGP, Paris and VISCOPY Ltd, Sydney 2003.