Prior to the start of the Second World War, Pierre Bonnard continued to paint and live life at a pace which would put many far younger than him to shame. In 1937, he spent much of the Spring and summer at Deauville, on the Channel coast in Normandy, northern France.
While there, he gave a long interview to the arts magazine Verve, which was published by a friend, Tériade, the following year. That forms one of the most detailed accounts of his art and its intent. Bonnard also completed a large decorative painting for the Palais de Chaillot in Paris.
Concealed in the colour harmonies of his Garden with Small Bridge (1937) are several figures, including a mother and infant in the foreground, two older children in red-brown, and a woman in blue with two dogs – possibly Marthe or a friend. Harder to distinguish from the extreme flattening, at the right, appears to be another figure, perhaps a man, bending down with a sleeping dog by his feet. Their relative sizes and positions in the view, some of the most fundamental cues to depth, appear inconsistent with any projection into three-dimensional space.
In The Open Door (c 1937), Bonnard reorders his previous views over tables, through windows, and out into the landscape. Here we look out through the frame of French windows, to a table which has escaped into the landscape, and dazzles against the brilliant blossom beyond.
In 1938, Bonnard spent the warmer months, from May to September, in the north at Deauville again. Over Christmas, his paintings, together with those of Édouard Vuillard, were exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, in the USA.
Landscape at Le Cannet (1938) is one of his later views over the small town to the rolling countryside and dark hills in the distance. The clouds appear to be shed slivers of those hills, in similar colours and backlit by the sun.
In The Yellow Boat (c 1936-38), he uses the forms of two moored boats and the distant land to divide his canvas into rectangular segments. The boat of the title is shown in the lower right, where there is also a figure walking to the right. Like the boat itself, he is yellow in the light of the setting sun.
This was most probably painted when he was at Deauville, as its colours are less intense than similar marine works which he painted on the Mediterranean coast.
Yellows and reds dominate his Nude and Chair from about 1936-38. Marthe is poised, her left knee resting on the seat of a chair, as if waiting for something to happen.
She continued to spend much of her day bathing, for which the Bonnards now had a more modern bathtub.
The Large Bath, Nude (1937-38) shows Marthe lying back full-length in the tub. The earth red of her tanned skin seems to fill the upper part of the bath, where its colour is reflected from its inner surface. The bath retains its traditional form, with sides which are still parallel.
In the Spring of 1939, Bonnard returned to Paris, where he moved to a new apartment and sold his property at Vernon. He then spent part of the summer at Trouville, on the Channel coast again, before returning to Le Cannet for the rest of the year. He did not go back to Paris until 1945, after the end of the war.
I’m unsure whether Bonnard painted Red Cattle, Plowman (c 1939) on the Channel or Mediterranean coast, but suspect it was the latter because of its intense colours and visual impression of heat. Two figures stand beside what could be a plough, and a red-brown bull/bullock takes what little shade it can behind a low hedge. Beyond these fields, the land descends to the sea, with distant hills forming the skyline.
Table with Bowl of Fruit (1939) shows a single bowl laid out on a white tablecloth, with the more complex forms of chairs in the background.
Bonnard had been receiving distinctions from the academies across Europe, and in 1940 was made an honorary academician of the Royal Academy in Britain. That year he and Marthe finally took up permanent residence at Le Cannet. However, his friends Vuillard and Pankiewicz died during the summer, which affected him greatly.
Bonnard’s Self-Portrait from 1940 shows him with both hands clenched and raised, reminiscent of his earlier self-portrait The Boxer. This is the reflection in a dressing table mirror, though, which he marks using its lower edge and items positioned at its foot.
In the Bathroom from about 1940 barely shows Marthe in her bath, but concentrates instead on the blue sky seen through its deep window, and Marthe’s collection of small ornaments and mementos on shelves around the dressing table.
In 1941, Bonnard’s brother Charles, who had been very close, died in Algeria.
Nude in Bathtub (c 1938-41) is perhaps the culmination of the changes which had been taking place in Bonnard’s painting. Its colours are brilliant and visionary. The form of the bath adopts itself to that of Marthe within, curving around her legs in its asymmetry. The shimmering patterns of the floor and the curtain are quite independent of their orientation. Beside the bath, Marthe’s dog looks up at the viewer, as if knowing where this is all heading.
On 26 January 1942, Marthe Bonnard died in their villa at Le Cannet. Pierre was understandably devastated.
She didn’t vanish from Bonnard’s paintings, yet. This gouache from 1942 shows the ghostly figure of Marthe Entering the Room, for example.
Bonnard used gouache, pastel and coloured crayon to inscribe her again in The Bath, which I believe has also been dated to 1942.
In 1943, Bonnard himself became unwell, and had to be cared for in hospital for ‘congestion of the lungs’. In February, his work was exhibited alongside that of Chirico, Degas, Dufy, Matisse, Utrillo, and others, in Nice.
Living alone now, Pierre Bonnard was free to walk out and paint further afield again. This view of the Mediterranean Coast from about 1943 is closer to those earlier in the century by Signac and others, using the pines as repoussoir for the sea and small cliffed promontories.
He also had the vibrant colours of his Garden at Le Cannet (c 1943), now without a figure in sight.
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.
Timothy Hyman (1998) Bonnard, World of Art, Thames and Hudson. ISBN 978 0 500 20310 1.