Early into the new year of 1912, Pierre Bonnard went to stay in Grasse, in le Midi, where he remained at the Villa Antoinette until April. In August, he holidayed with Marthe in Vernon, where they bought a house which they nicknamed Ma Roulotte (‘My Caravan’). This was built on piles driven into the bank of the River Seine. Being so close to Claude Monet at Giverny, Bonnard started visiting him regularly, something he kept up until Monet’s death in 1926.
Bonnard was offered admission to the Legion of Honour, but in common with other Nabis, refused.
The Terrace at Grasse (1912) is not only a riot of colour and vegetation, but features at least two cats strolling around the terrace, and a woman in a cloche hat, probably Marthe.
The title of Bonnard’s painting of The Capstan (1912) – in French Le Cabestan – seems to have eluded translation: it refers to the large human-powered windlass, around which at least three people are pushing one of its bars. This was used to haul boats from the sea up the steep foreshore to the right. I suspect that Bonnard painted this in le Midi during the first part of the year.
Bonnard’s Evening Landscape (1912) is less brash, although its countryside suggests that this too was a view in le Midi.
Back in the north of France, Bonnard’s colours were more pastoral, but still rich in this painting of the Blue Seine at Vernon (1912).
In his Summer in Normandy (1912), two women sit talking, one under a large sunshade.
In the years preceding the First World War, Bonnard painted many still lifes, of which a large proportion were floral, including this vase of Poppies (1912) seen on a verandah. His other motifs included traditional arrangements of fruit, and laid-out tables.
Bonnard’s style gives the impression of his work being painted very quickly, much of it in front of the motif. In reality, many of his works were the product of a more formal and sometimes quite protracted process, as revealed in these Figure Studies for ‘Le Printemps’ from about 1912. Although an avid photographer, at this time photography doesn’t appear to have played any significant role in his preparations for painting.
Nudes and intimate domestic scenes seem to have been less prominent in his work at this time. Some of those which he did paint perhaps bear the influence of Edgar Degas, as in this Woman in a Tub (Nude Crouching in a Tub) from 1912.
The following year (1913), Bonnard seems to have travelled less, working in Vernon and Saint-Germain-en-Laye, also to the north-west of Paris, and visiting Hamburg with Edouard Vuillard and other artists, at the invitation of the director of the Hamburger Kunsthalle, the city’s major art gallery.
For this and the next couple of years, Bonnard felt that he had reached a ‘crisis’ in his painting, in which he had lost sight of form in his pursuit of colour. He therefore resolved to return to drawing more, and to concentrate on shapes – which seem to have been at the centre of his attention in Woman in a Tub above.
Girl Playing with a Dog (1913) shows Vivette Terrasse, one of the daughters of Claude Terrasse, the artist’s brother-in-law. Bonnard makes this portrait true to her name, as she runs in the sunshine alongside the family’s dog.
Bonnard had not abandoned his mirror play, nor removed his easel from more private rooms in the house. The Dressing Table with a Bunch of Red and Yellow Flowers (1913) presents us with another visual riddle which we struggle to resolve.
Shown in the mirror above the dressing table is a reflection of what lies behind the artist. There’s a nearly-nude figure sat in the corner, and what appears to be a bath, or a bed on which there is a large black object, possibly a dog. As ever, the artist is nowhere to be seen, unless of course that headless figure is male rather than female.
In his Kneeling Woman (Nude with Tub) (1913), Bonnard appears to have got so close to his subject as to be inside the tub with her. Her position is again reminiscent of paintings by Degas.
The early months of 1914 saw Bonnard working again in Saint-Tropez, where he rented a house. In the summer, his paintings were included in a major exhibition at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris, alongside modern masters such as Cézanne, Matisse, Renoir, Signac, and van Gogh.
This painting of a Lane at Vernonnet (c 1912-14) divides quite crisply into the hot dry yellows of the lane and walls, deep greens of the trees, and the intense blue of a cloudless sky in the middle of the day. A small child breaks the stillness of the lane, and they have the same whimsical caricature of his earlier children on the streets of Paris.
The Terrace (1914) is not that shown above, at Grasse, and apart from pale yellows, its colours are more subdued in the gathering twilight.
Bonnard seldom painted panoramic views, but Resting in the Garden from about 1914 is a fine example of an exception. At the left, Marthe reclines on a lounger, with a table decked with fresh fruit in front of her. On the opposite side of the table sits a large ginger and white cat, its eyes almost closed in the bright sunshine.
Beyond this small terrace, trees with rich foliage lead off to rolling countryside, with a white village church in the distance.
This year, Bonnard moved back from the dressing table and its mirror, for The Bathroom Mirror (1914). Marthe’s reflection is now but a small image within the image, showing her sat on the side of the bed, with a bedspread matching the red floral pattern of the drapes around the dressing table. Bonnard has worked his usual vanishing trick for himself, and a vertical mirror at the right adds a curiously dark reflection of the room.
My final selection for this period is Bonnard’s Nude in an Interior from about 1912-14, which refers back to his Man and Woman in an Interior from 1898, with such extreme cropping that only a thin sliver of Marthe is visible. Something else is in front of her – perhaps the artist, or a hanging dress – but so little of it is shown that it is unidentifiable.
The rest of the interior is a complex overlay of coloured rectangles, from cropped surfaces and objects. We feel as if we have caught a glimpse of something which we shouldn’t have, but remain fascinated in trying to imagine what we cannot see.
With the First World War in progress, life in France may have felt increasingly precarious. But for Bonnard, 1915 was to bring a great surprise as Marthe started to paint.
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.