For Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), 1896 was a momentous year. On 6 January, his first solo exhibition opened at Durand-Ruel’s gallery in Paris. His forty-nine paintings, posters, and a screen were positively reviewed by critics such as Gustave Geffroy, but described as “hideous” by Impressionists such as Camille Pissarro.
He exhibited again that year in Brussels, at the successor to the Salon of the XX, and at the thirteenth and final exhibition of the Nabis.
Bonnard’s Views of Paris (c 1896) turns its board into a small screen for three separate scenes from the streets of the city. Each is viewed from a high point such as the window of an upstairs room. At the left is a view along a narrow cul-de-sac. In the centre is a bustling broader street near an intersection, with a market barrow and several carriages. At the right is a view of families in one of the city’s parks.
Rue Tholozé or Montmartre in the Rain (1897) shows one of the streets at the heart of Montmartre in Paris, not far from the famous Sacré-Coeur. Seen from the third or fourth floor, it’s a grey and wet evening in which the lights of the windows provide a pervasive warm glow.
Narrow Street in Paris (c 1897) is another aerial view of a narrow and bustling backstreet.
In 1898, Bonnard illustrated a serialised novel, published in Natanson’s La Revue Blanche. Renoir wrote that he found those illustrations “utterly exquisite”.
Bonnard painted various sidewalk scenes in Paris, such as this view of a Café Terrace from 1898.
Le Grand Boulevard (c 1898) is one of at least two versions of this motif, seen from closer to the ground.
In 1898, Bonnard painted the first of his controversial works revealing his private life with Marthe, in Man and Woman in an Interior (1898), a motif known better from his later version of 1900. He stands naked, looking away, as Marthe is getting dressed on the bed. Its post-coital implications are clear. The image has also been cropped unusually, as if it was a ‘candid’ photo, which enhances its voyeuristic appearance.
In the Spring of 1899, Bonnard visited Venice and Milan, in company with Vuillard and Ker-Xavier Roussel.
Bonnard’s Paris concentrates on the street life away from its most famous landmarks, but his view of The Arc de Triomphe from about 1899 is an exception. Even here, though, the arch is quite far into the distance, dominated by the trees to the right, and figures on the sidewalk.
He continued to paint occasional country landscapes, such as Dauphiné Landscape (c 1899), which was most probably made when he was visiting his family’s country house in Le Grand-Lemps. This was painted during the late summer, with the harvest under way in the closest field.
Neither had Bonnard cast aside his Japonisme. Flowered Branches (c 1899) is painted as if it was a hanging silk scroll or a panel from a screen, with the popular Japanese Spring motif of the blossom on trees.
Most of Bonnard’s indoor paintings at this time showed meals or tables set for eating. The Lamp (c 1899) is unusual for its chiaroscuro lighting and his detailed depiction of the reflection on the globe below the light.
A mother, cropped at the left edge, is sat with her child at the dining table. Another figure is lost in the darkness to the right of the lamp, and at the right edge there is a large cat sat on the table. Above the bowls of fruit, other food, and two wine bottles is an ornate lamp which rises to a green shade cropped through at the top.
Set between four ornamental scrolled arms is a reflective near-sphere. Its reflection shows two of the arms, one of the bottles of wine, and the bowl of fruit on the white tablecloth.
Following from Man and Woman in an Interior, Bonnard’s first painting of Marthe nude is this study for Indolence made in about 1899.
The finished work, Woman Dozing on a Bed or Indolence of 1899, shows Marthe lying relaxed on a double bed. As with Man and Woman in an Interior, the implication is that this is post-coital.
Marthe lies with her right hand tucked behind her neck and her left hand below her right breast. As her right foot dangles off the side of the bed, her left almost grips her lower right thigh, spreading her legs and exposing her sex. A brown blanket lies at the foot of the bed, it and the sheet wrinkled where the couple had been in bed together. The artist makes his presence known by wisps of blue smoke from his pipe, which are scattered around the edges of the painting.
In just two years, Bonnard and Marthe have shared with us some of the most intimate moments of their life. And that was only the start.
Guy Cogeval and Isabelle Cahn (2016) Pierre Bonnard, Painting Arcadia, Prestel. ISBN 978 3 791 35524 5.
Gilles Genty and Pierrette Vernon (2006) Bonnard Inédits, Éditions Cercle d’Art (in French). ISBN 978 2 702 20707 9.