Pierre Bonnard’s beauty and sadness

Pierre Bonnard painted what he remembered not what he saw, and his enigmatic pictures are ripe with the immanence of decline.

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There is a strand of art that exists on the edge of the mainstream – existing, too, slightly out of time, regardless of when it was made. It takes as its subjects the domestic interior and silence and finds in them both poetry and melancholy. The greatest exponent of this intimism was Vermeer and other leading practitioners number Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin (1699-1779), Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916), and two 20th-century English painters, Howard Hodgkin and Patrick Caulfield. The most prolific though was Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), who was the prime exponent of “slow” painting during a time of frenetic artistic change.

While Picasso was formulating cubism, the futurists fracturing form, the constructivists turning to geometry and the vorticists exploring the dynamism of the machine age, Bonnard painted sun-dappled rooms, his wife Marthe in the bath, tables laid for lazy meals and gardens super-saturated with colour. He was as committed to experimentation as any of his peers – what he called “submission to the picture” – but he did it quietly, without manifestos and proclamations. His determinedly personal path split opinion; Picasso dismissed his art as “a potpourri of indecision” but Matisse, also a painter of interior scenes, called him “the greatest of us all”.

The 100 paintings at Tate Modern’s “Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory” present a welcome opportunity to see which of Picasso or Matisse got closest to the truth. The exhibition concentrates on Bonnard’s work post-1912, by which time this Parisian had discovered both the South of France and how to balance structure and colour in his paintings.


The Window (1925)

A large part of the charge within his work comes from his idiosyncratic methods. He would not paint in front of a scene but from his memory of it. “I have all my subjects to hand,” he said. “I go back and look at them. I take notes, then I go home. And before I start painting I reflect, I dream.” So he did not stand over Marthe and paint her as she bathed, nor did he sit at the table with his easel beside him, but instead would tack his canvases to his studio wall and, prompted by sketches he had made on scraps of paper or in his pocket diary, paint the image the scenes had left on his mind. It was a long and immersive process. He was once asked if he would add a particular object to a painting but refused, claiming: “I haven’t lived with that long enough to paint it.”

He did live long enough with Marthe and as a result painted her no fewer than 384 times. They met in Montmartre in 1893 when she became first his model, then his lover and only in 1925 his wife (at which point she revealed that her real name was Maria Boursin and not Marthe de Méligny). It may seem from the innumerable pictures Bonnard painted of her bathing, drying herself or dressing that she took an inordinate number of baths, and indeed she did, as a relief from tubercular problems. The fact that the bathtub can come to seem like a sarcophagus in the pictures is therefore apt.

It had, though, a second meaning for Bonnard. In the early 1920s, shortly before moving to his modest house in Le Cannet, in the hillside above Cannes, he fell in love with Renée Monchaty, another of his models, and promised to marry her. When he told her that he couldn’t bring himself to leave Marthe she killed herself: one story has it that her body was found in the bath. These pictures then are filled with guilt and sadness as well as water.


Nude in an Interior (c 1935)

Bonnard’s paintings are in effect still lifes. Even when peopled by Marthe or children and animals they are expressions of Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquillity”. The placement of fruit on a plate, the audacious cropping of a figure by a doorframe or mirror edge, or the veering angle of a rug or table were for him a means of recapturing a moment in time: the comparison with Proust seems inescapable. The people in his paintings don’t communicate – indeed they are emotionally absent – but the objects, colours and rhythms of light do.

Bonnard himself explained his method as a way of distilling “the first impression – I want to show all one sees on first entering the room – what my eye takes in at first glance”. If he simply sat down and painted what he saw then “the initial seduction” would be lost. This perhaps accounts for why the room or the garden is every bit as important as any human presence: absence, the sense of someone having just got up and walked away or strolled along a path is just as powerful. These human vibrations are reflected both in his flickering, unsettled and near abstract handling of paint and in the throb of his colours.

The attempt to get things absolutely right was never-ending: Bonnard could spend a decade on a picture and once asked his friend Vuillard to distract a museum guard’s attention so he could add a flick of paint to a picture he had sold years before.

It was a difficult business to carpe diem and catch feelings and foliage at their ripest – ripe too with the immanence of decline. 

“Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory” is at Tate Modern, London SE1 until 6 May

Michael Prodger is Reviews Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article appears in the 25 January 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s running Britain?