On Pierre Bonnard’s Drama and Quiet Seduction

"Bonnard’s Worlds" at The Phillips Collection is so rich in color and composition you'll want to visit at least twice.

A painting of a person sipping a cup of coffee at a table with a red checked cloth
‘Coffee,’ 1915, Oil on canvas, 28 3/4 x 41 7/8 in., Tate, London,
Presented by Sir Michael Sadler through the Art Fund, 1941. © 2024 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The angle of a doorframe, an open window, a table laid with fruit and teacup, a dog perched on a checkered tablecloth—all these moments of everyday life, heightened with color and shadow, are Bonnard’s drama. He said that he doesn’t paint in front of the subject but sketches the scene, departs, dreams the image and then paints. His hand managed to capture this dreaming on canvas. There’s a liquid viscosity to his images as if at any moment they will slide out of view and vanish, like in a dream.

Sign Up For Our Daily Newsletter

By clicking submit, you agree to our <a rel="noreferrer" href="http://observermedia.com/terms">terms of service</a> and acknowledge we may use your information to send you emails, product samples, and promotions on this website and other properties. You can opt out anytime.

See all of our newsletters

A show currently at The Phillips Collection, “Bonnard’s Worlds,” captures the artist’s skill like a living snapshot in sixty works spanning six decades. Rather than displaying canvases chronologically, curator Elsa Smithgall chose a different approach. “Because Bonnard’s inspiration was his daily existence, the concept of the show is his intimate relation with the natural and domestic world and his art,” she told Observer. “His sense of wide expanse in nature’s grandeur all the way to the interiors, like the bathrooms, the most intimate.”

Each room of the exhibition has a theme: landscapes and garden, dining room and parlor, bedroom and bathroom. And it is indeed a fresh way to display Bonnard’s artistry, but it misses the opportunity to view his development as an artist.

In all the work, there is his luxurious color and light in complex compositions. Often the people in his paintings blend into the wall, painted with darkened flesh, giving the sense that everything is of equal value. Window, table, fruit, cats and dog, pillows, wallpaper, his women are all like a dream, fused together and moving rapidly before your eye. It’s when you step back at least five feet and are alone with the painting without iPhones blocking your view, that you can take in the whole of the picture as well as make out the individual parts. How fortunate it would be to have this ability in our dreams.

A colorful impressionist style painting of an outdoor vista
‘The Garden,’ 1936-37, oil on canvas, 50 x 39 3/8 in., Musée d’art modern de Paris, purchased from the artist, 1937. © 2024 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In The Garden (1936), there is a cacophony of shapes and colors. A small rectangle of blue for the sky, a thin umber path, two chickens and two birds are surrounded by the fecund density of plants, flowers, and trees. The scene feels humid and close, with no air circulating. Like many of his paintings, the colors appear watery and yet the images are recognizable. In each of his paintings, light triumphs.

Coffee (1915) shows the dining room where the Bonnard’s rented a house in the country. Marthe, his wife, and their dachshund sit at a table set with coffee. The red and white checkered tablecloth contrasts with the turquoise coffee servings, along with Marthe’s bright orange blouse. All are framed vertically on one side with ochre and umber, the other side with a decorative screen. Perspective is skewed as if we were looking at the scene from above, again like in a dream.

A painting of a woman wearing black stockings looking at her leg
‘Young Girl with Black Stockings,’ 1893, Oil on wood, 9 1/2 x 6 3/4 in., Musée d’Orsay, Paris, Gift of Zeïne and Jean-Pierre Marci-Rivère, 2011. © 2024 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Born in 1867, Bonnard had a long, productive career starting in his twenties and continuing until his death. Born in a village just south of Paris, he lived through two world wars. In his early career, he illustrated books of poetry by Paul Verlaine, Octave Mirbeau, Andre Gide, and Claude Anet. He was the founding member of Les Nabis, a Post-Impressionist group of painters. Along with Vuillard and Maurice Denis, the Nabis artists were precursors to Abstract Expressionism. Bonnard was also close friends with Monet and Matisse. Always drawn to the Mediterranean, at the outbreak of WWII he moved to the south of France and lived there until his death. There was a retrospective of his work at MoMA in early 1948—a celebration of his eightieth birthday, just a few months after he died.

SEE ALSO: Chicago’s Hyde Park Art Center Puts Alice Shaddle Back in Her Rightful Spotlight

His early Young Girl with Black Stockings (1893) looks as if the girl is floating on a sea of clouds or in a bubble bath. You can’t make out exactly what she is sitting on, so it’s like a dream. Woman with Dog (1922) is a tender portrait of Marthe holding their pet dachshund on her lap. Her hair and the dog’s coat are a lush auburn and the woman’s dress is bold scarlet red. They sit in front of a backdrop in vertical hues of violet. Bonnard has given the dog a puppy-like pose. Marthe, too, has a young face. In neither figure can you see the eyes and yet both of their expressions are quiet and endearing. The Bonnards had seven dachshunds over several decades. Each dog had the same name, Poucette, which means “tiny thumb.” These pets, along with their cats, are often in Bonnard’s paintings.

A painting of a woman at a dinner table holding a small brown dog
‘Woman with Dog,’ 1922, Oil on canvas, 27 1/4 x 15 3/8 in.,
The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, Acquired 1925. © 2024 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

In the later Large Nude in the Bathtub (1924), the naked woman, enamel bathtub and water in the tub are the same hues of white, lavender and Paynes gray. A shadow runs along her face, back and buttocks, and down her leg, pooling in the water in the tub. Paintings in the bathroom and bedroom are often of his wife, Marthe, to whom he was married for fifty years. A nervous, jealous wife, Marthe was apparently also a hypochondriac and spent long hours in the bath. Sometimes their pet dachshund lies on a rug patiently waiting for his mistress. The figure’s buttocks are lined in deep crimson red. I overheard one woman speaking about this painting with its rear-end view: “I would be simply mortified.”

A painting of a nude standing in a large bathtub over a yellow patterned floor
‘Large Nude in the Bathtub,’ 1924, Oil on canvas, 44 5/8 x 32 3/8 in., Private collection. © 2024 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

The overwhelm of composition and color in the exhibition demands multiple visits. I went through the show three times with a break in between viewing. Thankfully, the last time there were very few people so I could stand back for long moments. Bonnard’s contrasts of color, like mauve, crimson red, gold; the luminous flesh of his nudes; a witty positioning of his dogs and cats; along with decorative wallpaper, patterned rugs, colorful tablecloths are a potpourri of riches. Yet Bonnard disliked luxury, preferring a simple lifestyle and the countryside. “He was monk-like, a humble person,” said Smithgall. “It’s interesting that in the work you can never really make eye contact with the people. No model is looking straight at you. His work is about feelings and open to interpretation. It is universal in its appeal to transcend time and space.”

Bonnard had many commissions in his lifetime, and in 2019, a painting of Bonnard’s sold for $20 million at auction. Matisse said, “Bonnard was the greater painter for the future.” But Picasso thought his paintings “lacked assurance.” In 1925, The Phillips Collection founder, Duncan Phillips, bought two early Bonnard paintings, Early Spring (1908) and Woman with Dog (1922). Phillips also hosted the artist’s first solo museum exhibition in 1930. By the 1950s, Phillip’s collection contained more than thirty paintings. The current exhibition certainly gives you a passionate, color-drenched absorption into Bonnard’s work. You come away drenched in his dreamworld.

“Bonnard’s Worlds” is at The Phillips Collection through June 2.

On Pierre Bonnard’s Drama and Quiet Seduction