Pierre Bonnard

Maria de Juan

Pierre Bonnard, the colour of feelings

The French Pierre Bonnard is celebrated for his bright iridescent colour palette but deeply inside, he was an extremely sensitive soul.

pierre bonnard nue al porte

A founding member of the avant-garde Post-Impressionist group Les Nabis, Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) helped bridge Impressionist style with expressive, modernist painting. His brushy canvases feature bold colours.

His main subject was Martha, the love of his life. The slim woman appears throughout his work. It is impossible to imagine his paintings without her. They were an enigmatic pair.

They met in Paris street in 1895 as she was selling her handmade paper flowers. He was 26, she was 24, but claimed to be younger and used a false name. He was of a wealthy family and she had her own secrets.They remained together for fifty years, despite Bonnard having numerous affairs with younger women. They lived together for more than thirty years before they married. She only revealed her real name at the wedding.

pierre bonnard model in backlight

Martha de Méligny remained the central figure in Bonnard’s life until her death. Thin, frail, diffident, Pierre was a man of tireless energy, tough, resilient and a demon for work.


The painter was fascinated with intense colours. He combined them in his paintings in a completely individual way that gives them great intensity.

He could give the sense of bright sunlight outside, as well as artificial light indoors. Colour floods his canvases, almost overwhelming his subjects.

pierre bonnard bather

Bonnard was a founder member of the Nabis, an artists group in Paris: Maurice Denis, Paul Serusier, Edouard Vuillard...

The Nabis used flat patches of colour. They admired Japanese prints and the work of Paul Gauguin. Bonnard was strongly influenced by his rich chromatic, emotive compositions. He also inspired from Hokusai and other Japanese. Pierre’s nickname among the Nabis was “Le plus japonard” (the most Japanese).

Bonnard loved painting domestic scenes and was known as an intimist. He had a fondness for homy interiors that expressed the unusual aspects of daily life. He depicted family and friends in cozy surroundings.

pierre bonnard exit of the bath

He rendered intimate urban paintings, focusing more on the hues and material qualities of his brushstrokes than on the particularities of his subjects. With an eye for design, he filled his scenes with lush, decorative elements.

Pierre painted many nudes, mainly of his great love, Martha. She is depicted washing, drying herself or lying relaxed in the bath so that her floating body is magnified by the water.

Martha bathed every day to treat her tubercular condition. These intimate views were part of their daily life together. The pictures show de female anatomy from her lover’s gaze.

pierre bonnard the bathroom

Bonnard rarely painted from life. He sketched his subject and later painted in the studio. This allowed him to concentrate on the point of inspiration.

He would paint directly on canvas rolls and then cut them once the piece was completed. Some would take months, even years, to resolve.

Working this way added new complexity to the pictures. Bonnard would fill his studio with pictures that were tacked to the walls. He worked on different subjects side by side, including works inspired by his garden, his daily walks or his home experience.

The impact of Bonnard’s form, colour and luminosity are such as we can only experience at rare moments of hypersensitivity, when time seems to stands still.

pierre bonnard bathroom

He had an ability to emphatically savouring the quality of the fleeting moments as they passed, outside of the real time.

Pierre’s serenity floated not seldom on a humor that was untouched by any sort of malice. In his old age, the nude female figure, remained as symbols of a culture that was also passing.

The quality of transience in Bonnard’s imagery is unique. In contrast, the work of Monet, is recognised by an insistence on the momentary effect of atmospheric light. In that of Degas, by an attitude caught in transition from one posture to another. Monet recorded each season of the year and each hour of the day.

pierre bonnard le bain

For Bonnard it is always spring or early summer and high noon. It is not merely the movement of light or the shape of a figure that has been frozen, but the whole passage of time.

Martha spent a lifetime getting in and out of baths, perpetually drying herself, forever young and slender in spite of the passing of the decades, her skin reflecting the colours of the tiled walls.

Yet, the truth was quite different: she was a semi invalid, in poor health for fifty years. After Martha’s death in 1942, her room was locked up and no one allowed inside. Pierre lived five years more, without servants, alone except for his dog. The lonely Pierre wandered around his small kingdom, Villa Le Cannet, absorbing its nuances and souvenirs.

pierre bonnard siesta

Even in his late seventies the passionate urgency for painting did not desert him. His world remained ravishing: blurred, mysterious, saturated with colour.

He was able to transform any common object into gold: a pile of sheets in the linen cupboard, a grey radiator, the bath mat, the green metal table by the fig tree, the yellow balcony…

Since 2011 the Bonnard Museum in Le Cannet is exclusively dedicated to the artist. With its Belle Epoque architecture and lust garden, it shows his last oeuvre. Bonnard lived there for over 20 years and painted 300 pictures.

pierre bonnard marthe au jardin

Art expert and gallerist Aimé Maeght, made the inventory (1947) and kept the canvases for future shows. Today, Bonnard’s legacy belongs in museum collections worldwide and some are sold for more than 10 million US$.

Bonnard has been the subject of major exhibitions at Musée d’Orsay and Petit Palais (Paris), Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan (New York), Chicago Art Institute, Tate Modern (London), Victoria National Gallery (Australia)…

pierre bonnard vernon terrace

Pierre‘s oeuvre divides opinions. Pablo Picasso expressed frustration at his constant need to revise, saying:

Painting is a matter of seizing the power.

Matisse, instead, appreciated the full depth of his expression and called Bonnard

One of the greatest painters of all times.

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