Bonnard's self-portraits — most of which stayed in his possession until his death — provide an intensely personal record of his life, from the self-conscious young artist holding his brushes (painted in 1889) to this last image of a frail old man.
Through his self-portraits Bonnard reveals a developing sense of self-awareness and vulnerability, a baring of his body and soul that is strikingly at odds with the mood of his work as a whole. Bonnard, the observer, is generally describing a benign world of leisure, lushness and intimate detail. In this stark monk-like image, however, we see a man nearing death, resigned to his fate, staring with blank eyes through the mask of his face.
‘Composition’, Bonnard once said, ‘is the whole of art, it is the key to everything.’ The strong curve of the curtain on the left and the parallel horizontals at the top and bottom are typical of Bonnard’s desire to contain the image. Behind him are the blurred remnants of the tiles often painted in his many bathroom images. They compress the space, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere typical of many of his paintings.
Light from the left hits his shoulder and the side of his face and nose. His dark eyes are hollow slits, and it is their lifelessness that conveys the sense of despair in this painting. His curved shoulders and drooping mouth add to this effect. The fact that he is not wearing his glasses makes him appear naked; and if he was in fact painting his mirror image, his short-sightedness may have contributed to the foggy nature of this portrait. Seldom did Bonnard paint from life, however, as most of his paintings were created from memory.