Pierre Bonnard, the painter of happiness.
Pierre Bonnard, the painter of happiness.

Pierre Bonnard, the painter of happiness.

The painter Pierre Bonnard was born in Fontenay aux Roses, near Paris, in 1867.

While studying law, which led to a brief career as a lawyer in 1890, Bonnard took drawing classes at the Académie Julian in Paris, where he met Maurice Denis and Édouard Vuillard.

From 1888 onwards, Bonnard was a member of the “Nabi” movement, a post-impressionist movement whose admiration for Paul Sérusier’s “Talisman” led him to join this movement.

His second artistic shock came in 1890, when he attended an exhibition of Japanese prints. From then on, he extended his artistic practice to furniture decoration and decorative panels.
He was noticed in 1891 when he took part for the first time in the Salon des Indépendants, at which point he definitively gave up law to devote himself to painting and shared a studio with M. Denis and E. Vuillard.

In 1895, he met his partner, Marthe, who became his model and inspired his first nudes.
In the same year, he broke with the Nabis and continued with the Impressionists.

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“Au bord de la mer, sous les pins”, oil on canvas, 1921, private collection.

At the time of this painting, Marthe, whom he had met in 1893, was still not his wife, but his companion, his muse and his model, whom he painted many times. He married her in August 1925.
At the time this painting was created, he was also in love with Renée Monchaty, with whom he spent a long period from March 1921 in Rome. Renée committed suicide in Paris, three weeks after Bonnard married Marthe.

So modern! Pierre Bonnard, “Still life with lemons”, 1918.

Pierre Bonnard won many commissions, including that for the sets of Alfred Jarry’s “Ubu Roi” for the Théâtre de la Rue Blanche, which he produced with Paul Sérusier in 1896.
At the same time, he diversified his art by buying a “Pocket Kodak”, at which point he integrated photography into his artistic practice.

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Pierre Bonnard, “Young Women in the Garden”, also known as “The Striped Tablecloth”, 1921-1923, resumed and completed in 1945-1946.

The marvellous Nabis painter could not resist retouching his canvases, even after they had been completed and sometimes without the knowledge of the owners of the works. This practice has since been called “bonnardisation”.

Like many painters, Bonnard was attracted by the light of the South of France, and fell under the spell of Saint Tropez, where he stayed with Henri Manguin in 1909.

During these years of maturity, Pierre Bonnard expanded his network of friends, including Signac, Mayol and, in particular, Matisse, with whom he exhibited at Bernheim-Jeune in 1911.

“Garden” by Pierre Bonnard. This landscape, painted around 1935, may represent a corner of the artist’s beloved garden in Le Cannet, on the Côte d’Azur.

In 1912, Pierre Bonnard settled with his partner in Vernon, and married her in 1925. These years were marked by personal turmoil and a profound creative crisis.

The painter remained attached to the south and in 1926 bought a property in Le Cannet, where he was immersed in nature, but nevertheless favoured pictorial representations based on the work of memory.

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“Femme debout dans sa baignoire” (1925), Pierre Bonnard, lithograph, 30 x 20 cm, published by Galerie des Peintres-Graveurs, Paris.

The death of his partner in 1942 plunged him into a deep melancholy that he fought by painting in an increasingly luminous and colourful chromatic register, such as his work “L’amandier en fleurs”, which he completed shortly before his death in 1947.

The painter was recognised for his illustration of modernity, but it wasn’t until 2011 that a museum bearing his name was opened in Le Cannet.

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“Terrace at Vernon”,1923, Pierre Bonnard, oil on canvas, 120 x 105 cm. Sold at auction at Christie’s in 2011 for £7,209,250.

Painted in 1923, Terrasse à Vernon is a colourist’s masterclass, showing the view from Ma Roulotte, Pierre Bonnard’s Norman home. This painting was one of only three Bonnard chose to be exhibited at the Salon d’Automne that year and was very well received.
Bonnard had bought his house in Vernonnet, known as Ma Roulotte, or ‘My Caravan’, in 1912, and it remained a key base for his painting campaigns until the eve of the Second World War, when he spent more and more time in the south of France at Le Cannet.
The location of the house was also close to another great master, Claude Monet, whom Bonnard often visited. The two men had a great admiration for each other.

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Pierre Bonnard, “L’Automne”, 1912, based on a poem by Paul Verlaine.

In the oppressive heat
With which we roasted the summer,
Here creeps, still slow
And shy, to be sure,

On the waters and among the leaves,
Even in your street, O Paris,
The barren street where you mourn
Such perfumes never dry up,

Pantin, Aubervilliers, prodigy
Of chemistry and its games,
Here comes the breeze, I say,
The brave breeze…

The cleansing breeze
From the morbid languours of yesteryear,
The breeze that demands
That says to the plague: go away!

And tastes the laziness
Of the poet and the worker,
Encouraging and urging them on…
“Long live the breeze!” we must shout “Long live the breeze, at last, of autumn
After all these hellish simouns,
The good breeze that gives us
That healthy first shiver of winter!”

Pierre Bonnard, “Sunset, riverside”, 1917.
I admire Bonnard because I don’t think he tried so hard to keep up with the times, no matter what cubism, surrealism, the influence of primitive art or abstraction, he went his own way, on his own intimate adventure with art. As a result, his works are timeless, like this painting that could have been made today.  

                                                                            Pierre Bonnard, “L’escalier du Jardin”, 1940.

For a long time, it was not fashionable to like the ultra-colourful works of Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947).

At the age of 24, Bonnard said that he did not belong to any particular school and that his work was not part of the mainstream. Admittedly, he joined the Nabis (“prophets” in Hebrew) for a time, a movement that sought to recreate a form of sacred art with highly coloured, almost abstract canvases. But this was only to become more isolated later on.

First, geographically: Pierre Bonnard did most of his painting in Normandy, then in Le Cannet, on the Côte d’Azur, far from the hustle and bustle of Paris.

Secondly, artistically: he did not follow in the footsteps of the great movements of his time, Cubism, Surrealism… provoking the disdain of some of his contemporaries, such as Picasso, who had particularly harsh words to say about Bonnard’s “sentimentality”.

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                                                     Pierre Bonnard, “La nappe à carreaux rouges ou “Le déjeuner au chien”, 1910.

Bonnard retained from his Nabis period this incredible use of decorative motifs or fabrics, which he used to structure his works. He includes them as collages, plastered onto his work, without any desire to create perspective or reality.
A masterpiece of construction. Nothing is symmetrical or straight, and yet everything is in balance.

We feel the dog’s anticipation, we imagine his gaze trying to catch the woman’s, and yet Bonnard has no need to paint the details of the eyes. That’s where he’s fabulous: he gives the impetus and the viewer continues his work.

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Pierre Bonnard, “Intérieur aux fleurs” 1919.

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Pierre Bonnard, “L’armoire blanche”, 1931.

Bonnard dazzles us with his light. No photograph can capture this intensity, the balance, the perfection, while each element is convoluted, twisted, wobbly.

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In “L’Atelier au mimosa”, Pierre Bonnard offers us a lush view from the mezzanine of his small pink-walled house in the South of France.

Here, the painter gives an astonishing impression of space to his studio, which is in fact very cramped. As dazzling as sunshine in the cold of winter, the mimosa in bloom radiates throughout the composition!

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Pierre Bonnard, “The Garden”, circa 1936, oil on canvas, 127 x 100 cm, purchased from the artist in 1937, public domain, Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris.

Pierre Bonnard asserted his originality in the 1920s. Moving away from the decorative formulas of the pre-war period – between evocation and discovery – in contrast to the Impressionist analysis of Monet and Renoir, he favoured bold combinations of colour and light in a new rigour and sophistication of compositions (dining rooms and interiors, panoramic terraces and scenes in the bathroom).

In 1926, Bonnard and his wife acquired the villa “Le Bosquet” in Le Cannet, and soon added a new garden, which became the recurrent setting for the huis clos between the artist and his model through the rituals of daily life.

The artist moved away from the motif to paint from notes drawn on the spot or from memory, sometimes using the indirect vision of a mirror, which allowed unexpected distortions of space and dampened colour diffractions. He works standing up, with the canvas pinned directly to the studio wall.

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“Nude against the light”, 1908, Pierre Bonnard, oil on canvas, 124.5 x 109 cm, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.

Bonnard used his beautiful wife Marthe as a model for all his portraits and nudes.

Et Maintenant aux fesses

And now, to the buttocks!
Goddesses of goddesses,
Flesh of flesh, beautiful of beautiful.
The only beauty that penetrates us
With breasts, perhaps.
Of ever new emotion,
Pulp dive, alme skin!

They are almost oval,
Almost round. Opal,
Amber, pink (very few)
Blend in and merge
In matt white that responds
Blacks, pink for fun,
Of the stripe in the middle.

Goddesses of goddesses!
Rest in joy,
Of calm gaiety,
Malignant dimples
As well as laughter,
Some perversity
In such majesty… !

And when the time comes
To unite my destiny
To His celebrated destiny,
I can go without fear
And try to embrace
To the other side:
Their assistance is lent to me.

I stand up and press
And both buttocks
In my happy hands.
All their ardour gives,
Their vigour is good
To help with hymens
From evenings to tomorrows…

Paul Verlaine (“Et maintenant aux fesses” -excerpt)

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“The dining room” 1930-31

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“Young Girls with Seagulls” 1901, Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947)

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“House among the trees” (1918), Pierre Bonnard (1868-1947), Vernon.

Pierre Bonnard, “Young girl lying down”, 1921, oil on canvas, 56 x61 cm.

“Landscape of the Midi and two children”, Pierre Bonnard 1916-1918
In his paintings, Pierre Bonnard gives objects a human value and reproduces things as the eye sees them. His vision is reminiscent of the Primitives. He was unsurpassed in his ability to combine shapes and colours and respond to the demands of emotion. He gives the eye the feeling of life.

                                                                                                   “Toilette”, circa 1908.
Bonnard chose a sophisticated composition to depict Marthe, his partner and exclusive model, shown here both from behind and from the front thanks to the reflection of the mirror. The importance of the decoration and the presence of truncated or distorted elements, such as the pedestal table on which a jug is placed, push the composition towards a decorative abstraction characteristic of this period in Bonnard’s work. Reworked by the artist between 1914 and 1921, the painting was part of a period of doubt and questioning, after the Cubist wave, Bonnard was returning to the basics of painting.
Bonnard could not resist retouching his works, carrying a box of paints in his pocket, even in museums. Bonnardiser or bonnarder have entered common parlance, meaning to retouch a work of art that one has created, even without the knowledge of its new owners.

                                                                                                     “Croquet game”, 1892.
In Bonnard’s work, the marvellous thing that confuses our eye is that there is no hierarchy in the elements of the composition, our eye moves from one to another, the subject becomes accessory, the purpose is the composition. Finding the right balance of values. This painting is a masterpiece from Bonnard’s Nabis period, when he did not hesitate to include “decorative” motifs in his compositions, disregarding the representation of reality. Here, clothes become the pretext for including checks and chequered patterns.
The Nabis group – nabi means prophet in Hebrew – included Paul Sérusier (1864-1927), Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Maurice Denis (1870-1943), Henri-Gabriel Ibels (1867-1936), Paul-Elie Ranson (1861-1909), Édouard Vuillard (1868-1940), Félix Vallotton (1865-1925), Mogens Ballin (1872-1914)…

“Open Window”, sun on the Côte d’Azur by Pierre Bonnard, 1921. Dazzling!
What a fantastic composition, with this black awning responding to the little cat and the verticals… Everything seems to be nothing more than an assembly of geometric shapes that create a perfect balance. The arrangement of the elements framing the window opening directs the eye towards this voluptuous tree.

“Woman with dog”, 1891.
In 1890, Pierre Bonnard shared a studio with Vuillard and Maurice Denis. It was then that he began to make colour lithographs. The following year, 1891, he met Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and had his first exhibition at the Salon des Indépendants and at the first Nabis exhibitions. He exhibited with the Nabis until they disbanded in 1900.

Pierre Bonnard, “Breakfast”, 1917

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“Nude in an Interior” (1935) – Pierre Bonnard, oil on canvas, 134 x 69.2 cm. Collection of Mr and Mrs Paul Melon, National Gallery of Art, Washington, United States.


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