Pierre Bonnard’s Rediscovered Radiance

Pierre Bonnard, Autoportrait, 1945, oil on canvas, 56 x 44 cm. Fondation Bemberg, Toulouse

French painter Pierre Bonnard, who fell out of the spotlight in the decades following his death in 1947, is now in the midst of a well-earned revival.

Although Bonnard’s work commanded little attention for roughly four decades after his death, a 1984 exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris sparked new interest in his lyrical, personal portraits of the people, places and objects that inhabited his everyday world.

Now, Pierre Bonnard. Radiant Color, an exhibition on view at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec (MNBAQ) in Quebec City, promises to advance the Bonnard mystique and captivate new followers. It is the first-ever solo exhibition of Bonnard’s work in Canada, and the MNBAQ stop is the exhibition’s only presentation in North America. Featuring forty-two paintings, forty-three photographs and twenty-two works on paper from thirty-three lenders in eight countries, Radiant Color provides an important overview of one of Post-Impressionism’s most intriguing artists.

Pierre Bonnard, Paysage du Midi et deux enfants, 1916–1918, oil on canvas, 139.1 x 198.1 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, gift of Sam and Ayala Zacks, 1970 (71/62)

Curator André Gilbert believes that Canadians who are unaware of Bonnard’s work will find it easy to warm to. “It’s very seductive painting, and you don’t have to have a lot of art history background to appreciate and to love this kind of work,” he said in an interview with NGC Magazine.

Born into a comfortable middle-class family in 1867, Bonnard studied both Classics and the law, becoming a barrister in 1888. He was also taking art classes on the side, however, and soon decided to become a full-time artist.

Bonnard enjoyed early success as a poster-maker and engraver, and in his twenties became a founding member of the short-lived but influential avant-garde 1890s art movement, Les Nabis. Taking their name from the Hebrew word nabi or “prophet,” the Nabis were Post-Impressionists with a strong Symbolist overtone. Formed as a sort of secret society with its own language, all of the Nabis were given nicknames. Bonnard was known as “le Nabi très japonard” [“the very Japan-influenced Nabi”], for his fascination with Japanese prints and their influence on his work.

Pierre Bonnard, Marthe à la nappe blanche, 1926, oil on canvas, 69 x 54 cm. Winter Collection

In 1910, Bonnard left the bustle of Paris for a life of relative isolation in the countryside, where he developed a painting style that was deeply personal and subjective, while also being notable for its audacious use of colour. The intimacy of the artist’s work, in fact, derives largely from his decision to retire from city life. Gilbert notes that “his main subject for fifty years would be his wife,” Marthe, represented in paintings such as Nu de profil (1917) and Marthe à la nappe blanche (1926).

Visitors will also get a sense of the range of Bonnard’s work, as the exhibition (which is organized along both chronological and thematic lines) covers his early and late periods, and samples work in different media. Radiant Color includes a wide variety of oil paintings, illustrations, and watercolours, as well as a number of the artist’s photographs, some of them depicting subjects that later found their way onto his canvases.

The Port of Cannes (1927), on loan from the National Gallery of Canada, was painted a year after Bonnard bought his villa just north of the eponymous resort town on France’s Côte d’Azur. Gilbert notes that the work is not only “representative of his painting of the area around Cannes at that time,” but is also typical of his approach to light and colour, featuring roiling violet and blue skies limned in yellow, a low-contrast middle-ground, and dazzlingly bright boats pulled up on the beach.

“What is interesting for me is that the colour is used, I would say, in a very arbitrary way,” says Gilbert. “It is a painting dominated by blue hues, and that provides a good example of his use of colour as something more expressive than descriptive.”

Pierre Bonnard, Pont du Carrousel, 1903, oil on canvas, 72.4 x 99.4 cm. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gift of Mr. and Mrs. Sidney F. Brody (M.67.3)

This approach to colour, in turn, exemplifies Bonnard’s idea that the object of his work “is not to paint life, but to make painting come alive.” The artist’s role, in other words, is not to faithfully re-create reality, but to use paint in a way that discerns and expresses the underlying spirit of the moment.

“This is the essential thing to understand about Bonnard,” Gilbert says. “It is still figurative painting, but references to the real are disappearing regularly as he gets older. Most important for him was to create colour relationships and exploit the expressive quality of colour. The main thing for him was colour and not subject, and that makes him very modern. His painting was very radical towards the end.”

Pierre Bonnard, Porte du jardin de la villa Le Bosquet, Le Cannet, 1944, oil on canvas, 52.7 x 64.2 cm. Muskegon Museum of Art, Michigan

Bonnard’s arresting, deliberate use of colour is also apparent in other works such as Coin de table (1911), Paysage du Midi et deux enfants (1916–1918) and Porte du jardin de la villa Le Bosquet, Le Cannet (1944). Each shimmers with carefully considered colour combinations, whether the vaguely unsettling blue and yellow-orange hues of Paysage du Midi or the cheerful riot of yellows, greens and reds in Porte du jardin.  

 Although rooted in his immediate surroundings, Bonnard was never one to live cut off from other artists. Early in his career, he was recruited by art collector and publisher Ambroise Vollard to provide illustrations for a book by the celebrated poet Paul Verlaine. Later in life, Bonnard lived near Claude Monet, and maintained a long correspondence with Henri Matisse, who was also a neighbour.

Pierre Bonnard, Le Déjeuner, 1932, oil on canvas, 68 x 84 cm. Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

“He had good friends,” says Gilbert. “But despite this, I would say he worked outside the mainstream. He was not very interested in contemporary society. His focus was on making personal, intimate paintings.”

Lionized by Matisse, who called him “a great artist for our time,” Bonnard was often criticized as an “insipid Impressionist.” But there was far more to Bonnard than his use of light and colour. Considered, even in his day, to be an experimental painter’s painter — and perhaps something of an acquired taste — Bonnard has had the last laugh on his critics, with works that now command upwards of $15 million.

Pierre Bonnard. Radiant Color is on view at the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec in Quebec City until January 15, 2017, and at the Palazzo Chiablese in Turin, Italy, from February 10 to June 18, 2017. 

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