Pierre Bonnard (1867 - 1947)


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Born at Fontenay-aux-Roses, Pierre Bonnard was a French painter, lithographer and designer, as well as a founding member of the Post-Impressionist group of avant-garde painters, Les Nabis. His father was a prominent official of the French Ministry of War.

Before turning to art, Bonnard studied law and became a barrister. In 1891, he met Toulouse-Lautrec and began showing work at the annual exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants. He started designing frontispieces for the Revue Blanche in the same year. In 1896, Bonnard had his first solo exhibition at the Galerie Durand-Ruel, Paris.

In his 20s Bonnard became part of Les Nabis, a group of young artists, including Édouard Vuillard and Maurice Denis, who sought to create work of symbolic and spiritual nature. Working first in a highly patterned, expressive and decorative style, Bonnard produced paintings mostly depicting scenes of Parisian life. He also illustrated several books for Vollard, including Parallèlement (1900) and Daphnis et Chloé (1902). Circa 1900, he incorporated more space and rounded forms.

Bonnard often depicted intimate, interior scenes. His wife and muse of nearly fifty years, Marthe de Meligny, is a familiar subject, appearing in works such as The Bath (1925). Bonnard often portrayed Marthe as a young woman, despite her age. Acknowledging he could only paint scenes of familiar life, Bonnard applied himself diligently to a universe of domestic objects and rituals: terracotta jugs, teacups, feeding the cat, setting the table. Sometimes human figures in his pictures are secondary to inanimate objects, emphasised by vivid colours and textures. Bonnard continued to search for ways to represent his emotions through soft, multi-coloured layers of pigment, even as his contemporaries such as Pablo Picasso made political works like Guernica (1937), decrying the fascist military force during the Spanish Civil War.

Bonnard was more concerned with effect than conventional modes of pictorial structure. He is known for his intense use of colour, especially built with small brush marks and close values. Roberta Smith writes, ‘It’s not just the colours that radiate in a Bonnard’ [..] ‘there’s also the heat of mixed emotions, rubbed into smoothness, shrouded in chromatic veils and intensified by unexpected spatial conundrums and by elusive, uneasy figures.’

Only once Bonnard had developed a relationship with his subject was he ready to paint it in oil. His method involved transferring small sketches and watercolours to full-sized canvases, so finally, the image created is a reflection of that in his mind’s eye. As Bonnard reconstructed images from his memory, rather than working from life or photographs, his paintings have a dreamlike quality.

In 1912, Bonnard bought a villa near Vernon, close to Giverny, and henceforth divided his time between the Seine valley and the South of France (Grasse, Saint-Tropez, Le Cannet). Bonnard found the light in this region very appealing, and it became a source of landscape paintings of Le Cannet, perhaps his most important setting. As Bonnard continued to paint interiors with Marthe as a subject, his later works in genres of landscape and still life became increasingly rich in colour.

Bonnard died at Le Cannet.
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