Pierre Bonnard: Light and Travel, 1900-1904

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), The Pont du Carrousel (c 1903), oil on canvas, 71.4 x 100 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA. The Athenaeum.

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) had given viewers the first of many glimpses into the intimacy of his life and love with his model and lover, Marthe: first in an initial version of the couple getting out of bed in Man and Woman in an Interior, then in Woman Dozing on a Bed or Indolence of 1899.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), At the Park (1900), oil on cardboard, 36 x 39.5 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Although At the Park (1900) is not an easy painting to read – I don’t know what the prominent pale blue object at the left is – this is another of Bonnard’s explorations of high-contrast lighting. It reverses the progression more commonly seen in landscapes, with bright foreground and darker distance. Its heaped cumulus clouds are lit by wonderfully warm sunlight of a late autumn afternoon.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Young Woman by the Lamp (1900), media and dimensions not known, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

In Bonnard’s Young Woman by the Lamp (1900), the artist explores a very different light, cast by table lamps. In the foreground a woman is busy sewing under the lamp’s glow. In the background, at the left, a couple sit by another table lamp with a green shade.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Nude with Lamp (c 1900), oil on board on cradled panel, 53.4 x 31.5 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

The light in Bonnard’s Nude with Lamp (c 1900) is different again, as his model (from her hair and stature, not Marthe) basks in the bright light of the lamp.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Siesta (1900), oil on canvas, 109 x 132 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia. The Athenaeum.

Light and shade have important roles in Bonnard’s next painting of Marthe, where she lies prone on their double bed during Siesta (1900). This is almost an exact complement to Indolence: the head of the bed (and of Marthe) is reversed, she is prone rather than supine, and her left foot is drawn up to rest on the right behind her knee. A small dog is asleep among Marthe’s clothes on the floor.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Man and Woman (c 1900), oil on canvas, 115 x 72.5 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. The Athenaeum.

Bonnard’s earlier Man and Woman in an Interior developed into another major work, Man and Woman (c 1900). Marthe is not getting dressed, but sat up in the sunshine with her legs in a position reminiscent of that in Indolence, spreading her thighs. On the bed in front of her are small stuffed toy animals, including a cat with a red ribbon around its neck. A folded wooden screen divides the painting into two. Bonnard stands at the right edge of the painting, his legs appearing skeletal in the sunlight.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Marthe on a Divan (c 1900), oil on cardboard, 44 x 41 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

It was about 1900 that Bonnard started to make such frequent oil sketches of Marthe that they first became a visual diary. Many, like Marthe on a Divan (c 1900), record the everyday, just like snapshots.

In 1900, Vollard brought him a commission to illustrate a deluxe edition of Paul Verlaine’s Parallèlement.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), The Terrasse Family (1900), oil on canvas, 129 x 212 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. The Athenaeum.

In the Spring of 1900, Bonnard and Marthe left Paris for the country, something which became a habit in subsequent years. On this occasion, they stayed with Bonnard’s brother-in-law, the composer and musician Claude Terrasse, in the family property at Noisy-le-Grand, to the east of Paris. The Terrasse Family (1900) shows Claude Terrasse at the left edge, together with sundry children, wife, grandparents, cat, and dog, and a maid at the upstairs window.

This richly-coloured and mature painting was first exhibited at the Salon d’Automne at the end of 1903.

In February and March of the following year (1901), Bonnard accompanied Edouard Vuillard with the brothers Emmanuel and Antoine Bibesco on a tour of Spain, including Seville, Madrid and Toledo. After their return, a whole room at the Salon des Indépendants was devoted to Bonnard and the other Nabis.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), The Family in the Garden (c 1901), oil on canvas, 109.5 x 127.5 cm, Kunsthaus Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland. The Athenaeum.

The Family in the Garden (c 1901) is another view of the Terrasse family, this time from an upstairs window. I suspect that the colours are here rather more intense than in the original painting, although it still appears to be rich in chroma.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Daphnis and Chloe (c 1900-02), oil on cradled panel, 38.4 x 37.5 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Daphnis and Chloe from about 1900-02 is an unusual work for Bonnard, as a mythological narrative. It was produced for a deluxe edition of the story, another commission arranged by Vollard. During Bonnard’s research for this, he and Marthe embraced what they considered to be the harmony of Arcadia, and started to enjoy being outdoors naked, which Bonnard also recorded in photos.

The story of Daphnis (boy) and Chloe (girl) is a pastoral romance. When they were both babies, they were abandoned, rescued by different families, and brought up together to herd flocks for their adoptive parents. They fell in love, but were too naïve to recognise their own emotions. They each underwent various tribulations and near-disasters before being recognised by their natural parents. They finally married and lived happily ever after.

Bonnard’s painting shows Chloe in the foreground, with two other figures running through the wood behind.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), After the Theatre (1902), oil on panel, 46.7 x 39 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

After the Theatre (1902) shows a patron of the theatre, and no doubt of its actresses too, at the stage door. It provides a glimpse of another world, rather like the disturbing paintings of older men with young ballerinas, although here, at least, everyone is of an appropriate age.

In 1902, Bonnard stayed at Colleville in Calvados, on the north coast of France. He also visited the Netherlands, in the company of Edouard Vuillard, Ker-Xavier Roussel, and a patron and his wife. He started to create his first sculpture.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Misia at the Piano (Portrait of Misia Natanson) (c 1902), oil on canvas, 46.2 x 39 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Bonnard’s Misia at the Piano (Portrait of Misia Natanson) from about 1902 shows Misia Natanson née Godebska, who had married Thadée Natanson in 1893. She had become the muse of Bonnard and the Nabis.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Vétheuil (c 1902), oil on canvas, 54 x 80.1 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

He did not abandon landscape painting, and this winter view of Vétheuil from about 1902 has a wonderful twilight sky. This village is to the north-west of Paris, and had been home to Claude Monet between 1878-81, a period during which he painted many local landscapes.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), The Pont du Carrousel (c 1903), oil on canvas, 71.4 x 100 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA. The Athenaeum.

The Pont du Carrousel from about 1903 is another of Bonnard’s paintings exploring light – here the golden fire of an autumn dawn/dusk near the Louvre and Tuileries in central Paris. This shows the bridge before its reconstruction in 1906.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), The Intersection: Boulevard de Clichy and the Corner of the Rue de Douai (c 1904), oil on canvas, 98 x 76 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Bonnard’s scenes of street life in Paris were also maturing well. In The Intersection: Boulevard de Clichy and the Corner of the Rue de Douai (c 1904) he takes advantage of an elevated point of view and a bustling winter’s day, with plenty of pedestrians and various vehicles. Among the latter is a red car with fashionable whitewall tyres, and an open-top horsedrawn bus.

In the Spring, Bonnard stayed with Ker-Xavier Roussel in l’Etang-la-Ville, not far from Paris, then in July he went with Marthe to Varengeville, on the north coast. He also visited Saint Tropez, on the Mediterranean, where he met up with Roussel and Paul Signac, the Divisionist painter.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Ambroise Vollard (c 1904-05), oil on canvas, 74 x 93 cm, Kunsthaus Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland. The Athenaeum.

Bonnard’s portrait of Ambroise Vollard (c 1904-05) shows one of the most important art dealers of the time, embracing his cat. Vollard lived between 1866-1939, and brought Bonnard valuable work, including the illustrations he had made in 1900 and 1902. He was killed in mysterious circumstances when his car left the road, just a few weeks before the start of the Second World War. Although his portraits by Cézanne and Renoir are well-known, Bonnard’s has remained a well-kept secret.


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.