Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) first ‘discovered’ the south of France, le Midi, in 1909, and from then on its light and colours progressively took over his painting – and his life. In January 1910, he was commissioned by the Russian industrialist and collector Ivan Morozov, who wanted a huge painting of le Midi to help create a harmonious atmosphere in his home.
In January, Bonnard moved his studio to the Quai Voltaire, on the bank of the River Seine in Paris, opposite the Louvre. In September, he stayed in Saint Tropez, where he spent time with the Polish painter Józef Pankiewicz (1866-1940), who had attempted to introduce Impressionist and post-Impressionist styles to Poland in 1890. Bonnard also bought a drawing by Rodin, which sparked correspondence between the two artists.
In apparent response to his experience in le Midi, Bonnard’s paintings became markedly richer in chroma at this time. In The Garden in the Snow, Sunset from about 1910, not only is the sky scarlet, but the remaining snow on the ground is tinged with a pale purple-blue, giving it a subtle and distinctive glow.
Bonnard’s landscapes painted in le Midi, such as this Marine Scene from about 1910, are vibrant in colour. Although already well-connected by fast rail services to Paris, resorts like Saint Tropez were still in their early development at that time. It wasn’t until the 1920s that it was made highly fashionable by the likes of Coco Chanel.
Many of Bonnard’s paintings have little concern for form or architectural geometry, but this Street Scene (The Auteuil Viaduct) from about 1910 shows a view which clearly caught his eye in this town to the west of Paris. Two arches of a railway viaduct are superimposed to give the effect of an ogive window, beyond which are more rectangular and wedge forms, including the projected lettering GARAGE.
Blue Balcony from 1910 is a view from the garden of a house in which Bonnard and Marthe appear to have stayed, with the distinctive balcony cited in the title. The trees are in blossom, suggesting that it is Spring, and on the balcony is a figure, most probably that of Marthe.
Bonnard seems to have had a particular affection for cats, and a liking for painting them in humorous situations. In The Bouillabaisse (c 1910), a ginger and white cat walks below the kitchen table, on which are the alluring ingredients for this Provençal fish stew. The cat sniffs the air with great interest, if only it could work out how to steal the fish.
Bonnard’s sister and her family remained a favourite motif. In The Claude Terrasse Family from 1908-10, the artist again looks at the play of lamps and their light, although he curiously manages to avoid showing any face. Claude Terrasse the musician and composer is naturally at his piano, his face obscured by a lamp standing on its corner. Bonnard’s sister and her daughter sit sewing at the table, lit by a larger lamp and facing away.
Woman with Parrot (1910) is set in le Midi, with intensely bright and hot colours, against which the large blue parrot, some pots, and foliage make contrast. This was painted in Saint Tropez during Bonnard’s visit in September, and was based on an experience which Bonnard wrote about in a letter to his mother, in which he had passed a young dark-haired girl with an enormous blue parrot.
Bonnard’s surviving paintings from 1910 include relatively few nudes, among which is this Nude in Lamplight (c 1910). With her face deep in shadow, it is hard to know whether this is Marthe who is undressing for bed. Her body is lit only partially by the small bedside lamp, which changes her form with the dark shadows.
In 1911, Bonnard spent even longer in Saint Tropez, visiting there in March, July, and October, where he spent time with Paul Signac. He bought his first car; in some sources, this is claimed to have been a Citroen 2CV, made by a company which didn’t come into existence until 1919, and a model which was first released in 1948. I haven’t seen any better suggestion as to what he might have driven, though.
In May and June, Bonnard worked in Vernonnet, near Monet’s house at Giverny.
Bonnard continued to paint street scenes in Paris. Boulevard de Clichy (1911) is rich with his usual street life, including market barrows, a horse-drawn cab, many pedestrians, and some dogs. Its colours and the leafless trees suggest this was a damp and dull winter’s day, perhaps approaching dusk.
Morning in Paris, also painted in 1911, could not be a greater contrast, although the season is still winter. The rich light of a fine dawn colours the street, buildings, and even the clothes and faces of the people. This work was commissioned by Ivan Morozov, with its pendant Evening in Paris (1911) – for whom the next, much larger painting was made.
Bonnard completed his major commission for Morozov in May 1911, and its three huge canvases were exhibited in Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris, and later at the Salon d’Automne, before being shipped on to their new owner in Moscow. Mediterranean is one of Bonnard’s major works, and one of the great paintings of the century.
Its three panels were mounted slightly separated by engaged columns. When seen with those columns in place, they give the impression of a continuous view of a garden in le Midi, overlooking the Mediterranean, almost as a trompe l’oeil. The middle panel is based on a painting which Bonnard made in Saint Tropez in June 1909, known as View of Saint-Tropez (1910); however that work had been sold, and Bonnard may well have painted that panel from memory.
The right-hand panel revisits his Woman with Parrot, changing the colour of the bird to green to fit his overall colour scheme. The whole painting is full of the bright, rich colours typical of le Midi. It was a great success, and Morozov was so pleased that he commissioned another two outer panels showing First Days of Spring in the Country, and Autumn, Fruit Harvest. Bonnard completed those the following year.
Bonnard’s intimate domestic scenes hadn’t stopped, but just seem to have been fewer in number. In Nude with a Fur Hat (1911), his model has opened the door into a room bright with sunshine.
The following year Bonnard went to Grasse in le Midi in January, where he stayed at the Villa Antoinette until May.
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.