Pierre BONNARD | The man and the woman [L'homme et la femme]

France 1867 – 1947

The man and the woman
[L'homme et la femme]
oil on canvas
canvas 115.0 (h) x 72.5 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchase 1948
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Gérard Blot

This Bonnard work is often seen as a companion piece to his Woman dozing on a bed. Indeed, the pose of the woman, again Bonnard’s partner Marthe Boursin, is so similar that there seems a narrative continuity with Woman dozing on a bed, the latter being a preamble to the erotic interlude which is to follow in The man and the woman. Marthe now waits, distractedly playing with her cats, while Bonnard undresses.

By 1900, Marthe had featured in many of Bonnard’s works. From time to time his work featured both himself and Marthe, although this is the only painting in which he shows a full-length portrait of himself naked with her. Usually his presence is only indicated by an intimate fragment—an arm or a leg—or alluded to by other means, such as the smoke from his pipe.

What strikes us immediately about the painting is its audacious structure—the screen which separates the two figures divides the work into a kind of diptych. Bonnard was particularly interested in and influenced by Japanese ukiyo-e prints. Indeed his nickname amongst the Nabis was ‘Le Nabi très japonard’ (‘the very Japanese Nabi’). Ukiyo-e prints often employ a diptych or triptych format, echoing a two- or three-part narrative structure—in one part something is going on, while in another something else is going on. In Bonnard’s image, each side of the canvas is treated quite differently. In the left ‘panel’ Marthe is proportionally quite small. Emphasis is given to the subtle articulation of her skin tones, while there is a deliberate contrapuntal balancing of the massed base of the bed upon which the cats play, and the image of the painting above Marthe’s head. On the right we have the elongated form of Bonnard himself, almost a transposed echo from one of Cézanne’s many bather paintings—by 1900 Cézanne’s work had become much better known. In any other painter, Edvard Munch for example, the compositional device of dividing a world could have indicated some form of emotional abyss separating the lovers. Here however there is a quiet, intimate harmony; a kind of anticipatory stillness based on the unhurried familiarity which exists between the two lovers, and which serves as a prelude to the sexual union we assume is to follow.

Bonnard used painting not just to register what was there, but to see what was there. Painting, for him, was as much a process of contemplation, of discovery, as it was an act of depiction. The fact that this painting bears the simple, reductive title The man and the woman universalises the eternal nature of the moment Bonnard chose to depict. Again, this work shows Bonnard at his Intimist best.

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