France 1867 – 1947
The white cat
[Le chat blanc] 1894
oil on card
card 51.0 (h) x 33.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchase 1982
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
In 1890 a retrospective of Japanese prints at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts took place. Exposition de la gravure japonaise contained work familiar to the informed French public. The effect of the exhibition on Bonnard, then aged in his early twenties, was profound. He later recounted the experience:
I realized that colour could express everything as it did in this exhibition, with no need for relief for texture. I understood that it was possible to translate light, shapes and character by colour alone, without the need for values.1
Bonnard eagerly applied these lessons to his own art, and they are found thoroughly assimilated in the work reproduced here—the portrait of his sister Andrée, Madame Claude Terrasse, painted two years later in 1892. In the composition the principal figure is not depicted in three-dimensional space or point perspective, but rather the form of the figure is given substance by the flat pattern, sinuous line and curved shapes of the brightly coloured red-checked blouse. The influence of Japanese artists such as Utagawa and Toyokuni II Kunisada is evident, but most important is Kuniyoshi, whose print of a checked blouse was in the possession of Bonnard’s friend Denis.2 Despite the strong Japanese influence, the laid table, with its modelling and reflected light remains in the tradition of the still-life.
A cat features prominently in the work, and is the subject of his painting The white cat two years later. Edouard Manet, an avid Japoniste, had made many references to the cat in his art, including his celebrated painting Olympia 18633. This no doubt contributed to the inclusion of cats in late nineteenth-century French art. Aside from any literary or artistic tradition, the cat now had a new role to play—emblem of a growing intimate affection and a symbol of private life within the French family.4
Bonnard’s sister, along with his brother-in-law Claude Terrasse and the couple’s child, reappeared in Bonnard’s colour lithograph Family scene 1892, in the portfolio L’estampe originale. The slim format and flat patterning of the composition, with its elegant lines suggesting form, also reveals the profound influence that ukiyo-e prints (in this instance one by Utamaro) had on Bonnard—who within the group of artists was dubbed the ‘very Japanese Nabi’.
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
- Bonnard recount to Gaston Diehl, Comoedia, 10 July 1943, quoted in Claire Frèches-Thory and Antoine Terrasse, The Nabis: Bonnard, Vuillard and their circle, Paris: Flammarion 1990, pp. 86–87.
- Le Japonisme, exhibition catalogue, Paris:Galleries nationales du Grand Palais 1988, cat. 266.
- Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
- Alain Corbain, ‘Backstage’, in Michelle Perrot (ed.) and Arthur Goldhammer (trans.), A history of private life, vol. 4: from the fires of revolution to the Great War, Cambridge, Ma.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 1990, pp. 526–27.