Pierre Bonnard: Beaches and Bathing, 1921-1923

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Beach (c 1922), oil on canvas, 35 x 61.7 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Bonnard’s relationships were approaching crisis by the start of 1921. Still living unmarried with Marthe, who had been his partner and muse since they met in Paris in 1893, he was then deeply in love with Renée Monchaty, and stayed with her in Rome for much of March, abandoning Marthe in le Midi.

In the early summer, twenty-four of his paintings were exhibited at the Gallerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris. In June, he worked in Saint-Honoré-les-Bains (central France), in September in Luxeuil-les-Bains (eastern France, to the west of the Alps) and Saint-Gervais-les-Bains (to the NW of Mont Blanc in the Alps).

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Landscape with Green Trees (c 1921), oil on cradled panel, 36.8 x 46 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Landscape with Green Trees (c 1921) is a rich twilight view towards the end of the harvest, most probably in central or northern France. There appears to be a solitary figure in the dead centre of the painting, under the prominent tree.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), By the Sea, Under the Pines (1921), oil on canvas, 121 x 121 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

My first glimpse of Bonnard’s By the Sea, Under the Pines from 1921 reminded me of the many richly-coloured paintings of pines on the Mediterranean coast by Paul Signac, but Bonnard’s style is more sketchy in appearance. Rather than Signac’s bathing nudes, Bonnard populates the lower third of this painting with what looks like a family group: a woman, a dog, and a toddler are in the immediate foreground, and on the far side of a picnic table is Marthe, under a parasol, talking to a man in a white hat.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), The Port of Saint-Tropez (c 1921), oil on canvas, 65.4 x 81.3 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Bonnard painted this view of an almost deserted Port of Saint-Tropez (c 1921) on a breezy day, with small wavelets forming on the water surface. The mole at the right ends in a lighthouse, which merges visually with the sailing ship’s superstructure.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), The Open Window (1921), oil on canvas, 118 x 96 cm, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. The Athenaeum.

The Open Window from 1921 is, I think, one of the best of his works using the picture-within-a-picture device of a window. The dark shadow of the blind, the window and curtain behind, and the striped wallpaper below form a strong frame for that view of trees. Bonnard has also just cropped in a pot of flowers, black cat, and a woman – perhaps the blonde Renée Monchaty – in the lowest few centimetres.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Evening by the Lamp (1921), oil on canvas, 73 x 89 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. The Athenaeum.

Evening by the Lamp (1921) is another of Bonnard’s lamplit interiors, although perhaps by this time the room also has electric light. Sat at this tea table are a woman, who is pouring tea and may be Marthe, with a grey-haired man.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), The Vigil (1921), oil on cardboard, 96.5 x 120.5 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

The Vigil (1921) is a flood of red, either during an afternoon siesta in the heat, or in the late night. Marthe is slumped on a large chair at the right, with her dog on another chair beside her. Unlike many of his other lamplit interiors, Bonnard shows the shadows cast, but not the source of the light.

Bonnard spent much of 1922 in le Midi: in February he was in Cannes, in Le Cannet in April, then spent the summer in Vernon and Arcachon (towards the southern end of the Bay of Biscay).

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Place Clichy (1922), lithograph, 48 x 64 cm, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL. The Athenaeum.

Although Bonnard had painted little in the streets of Paris for some years, he was actively making lithographs such as this of the Place Clichy (1922) during this time. Fine strokes of the crayon replace his brushwork, and the colours are predominantly earths, giving these prints a distinctive look.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Beach (c 1922), oil on canvas, 35 x 61.7 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

This pair of coastal paintings, both probably made when he was staying at Arcachon in the south-west of France, stand out. Beach (c 1922) is one of his simplest and finest works of his career, with its breaking wave and two bathers.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), The Beach (Arcachon) (c 1922), oil on canvas, 27.5 x 43.2 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

The Beach (Arcachon) (c 1922) is much busier, with tents and awnings covering the golden sand, crowds of people and moored yachts in the distance. Beyond them is a vague line of breakers, where the bed of the Atlantic Ocean rises to form the shallows of the coast of France.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Blonde in a Blue Vest (1922), oil on canvas, 55.9 x 39.1 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Blond in a Blue Vest (1922) appears to be a portrait of Renée Monchaty looking at a painting or print.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Nude at the Window (c 1922), oil on canvas, 76.4 x 44 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

In his Nude at the Window from about 1922, Bonnard uses the diagonal light coming from that window to outline his model’s form, as she dries herself, or oils her skin.

Bonnard spent the early part of 1923 in Le Cannet, then at Vernon. However, in the summer his brother-in-law, the musician and composer Claude Terrasse, died, followed a little later in the year by his wife (Bonnard’s sister) Andrée, who was only 50. Bonnard and Marthe were deeply affected by this: they had been very close.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), In Front of the Window at Le Grand-Lemps (1923), oil on canvas, 65 x 64 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, Lyon, France. The Athenaeum.

In Front of the Window at Le Grand-Lemps (1923) returns to Bonnard’s family home in north-eastern France, for a picture-within-a-picture, using lighter and simpler framing. Just in front of the window are two women, one of them adjusting her hat, and a young boy, who looks almost ghostly in the bright sunlight.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), The Seine at Vernon (c 1923), oil on canvas, 35.5 x 76.2 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Bonnard still painted splendid landscapes of The Seine at Vernon, here in a view from about 1923.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), The Riviera (c 1923), oil on canvas, 79 x 76.2 cm, The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. The Athenaeum.

The Riviera from about 1923 shows le Midi in the brilliant white light of the middle of the day, with much of its colour burnt out by dazzle.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Nude Bending Down (1923), oil on canvas, 57.1 x 52.7 cm, The Tate Gallery (Bequeathed by the Hon. Mrs A.E. Pleydell-Bouverie through the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1968), London. Photographic Rights © Tate 2018, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported), https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/bonnard-nude-bending-down-t01076

Marthe appears in another bathroom scene in Bonnard’s Nude Bending Down from 1923. She steadies herself with her right hand against furniture, perhaps a high dressing table, at the left edge of the painting, as she stands on her left leg with its white high-heeled shoe.

Although it is supposed that she is wiping her right calf, the towels are on racks which frame the right side of the painting, not in her hand. The difference in colour of her lower right leg suggests that she may be pulling a stocking on with her left hand. Her head is bent down, concentrating on that activity, and obscuring her face. Perhaps Bonnard’s relationship with Renée Monchaty was cooling off at last.

The following year, Marthe’s paintings were exhibited for the first time, and the couple were to start their move to live in le Midi, at last.


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.