Many figurative painters engage in a little mirror-play. Titian used mirrors occasionally, and Velázquez used a mirror in the ‘Rokeby’ Venus (1647-51) to reveal the face behind his graceful nude. But I don’t recall seeing any artist use mirrors and play with their reflections as much as did Pierre Bonnard.
This penultimate overview of his works traces Bonnard’s long fascination for painting his figures in their reflections. As with previous overviews, I will keep my comments to a minimum, although here I will explain what he is showing us just a little more, to help you make sense of the image of images.
The Lamp, from about 1899, is one of his earliest paintings of a reflection, here a complex world in miniature seen in a spherical glass part of a lamp. The reflection shows two of the lamp’s arms, one of the bottles of wine, and the bowl of fruit on the white tablecloth.
Bonnard’s portrait of Ambroise Vollard from about 1904-05 is perhaps his first use of a large planar mirror in a figurative painting. It shows some of the art dealer’s collection, including a painting on an easel.
This seems to have sparked Bonnard’s fascination with reflections, and he next tried an unusual composition in this Interior from about 1905. Instead of showing the woman’s back in the mirror, the reflection contains a chair placed quite deliberately in front of the mirror and Bonnard himself, not painting but sat at a table.
In his Woman Getting Dressed from 1906, it is the mirror at the left which reveals the subject, who is sat beyond the right edge of the painting, getting dressed.
In 1908, Bonnard became overtly obsessed with painting reflections in mirrors.
The reflection in El Tocador (‘The Dressing Table’) of 1908 shows Marthe’s headless torso.
Mirror in the Dressing Room (1908) shows a similar dressing table and mirror in contrasting decor. The mirror now reveals a woman’s nude back and buttocks, and another young woman sitting to the left drinking a cup of coffee.
In The Toilet, alias The Toilet in Pink, from about 1908, the mirror shows us just half of her face, her right breast and arm.
The Bathroom, or The Dressing Room with Pink Sofa, again from 1908, plays even more with its reflection. The dressing table mirror now shows Marthe’s headless torso, and Bonnard replaces himself with an empty chair. There is also a second reflection in the residual water in the shallow metal bath at the left, which shows a small section of window frame.
For Reflection or The Tub in 1909, Bonnard adopts an elevated position, looking down into an angled plane mirror. The reflection almost fills the canvas, with the nude Marthe (I think) crouching slightly in the upper left corner, as she dries herself after a bath.
This carefully-contrived angle of view plays some odd tricks. The washing bowl on the dressing table is brought to overlie the larger shallow bathtub on the floor, for example. Some of the objects on the dressing table are shown directly, others only in the reflected image. And over on the opposite side of the room is a chair, and a coffee tray.
The Dressing Table with a Bunch of Red and Yellow Flowers from 1913 shows in its reflection what lies behind the artist. There’s a nearly-nude figure sat in the corner, and a bed on which there is Marthe’s large darkly-coloured dog. Its surprise is that the headless figure appears to be male rather than female. Is it the artist himself?
In The Bathroom Mirror of 1914, Marthe’s reflection is 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. A vertical mirror at the right adds a curiously dark reflection of the room.
Nude before the Mirror (Bather) of about 1915 inverts the mirror play with a small mirror mounted at head height to frame the model’s face, giving her an identity and character for once.
Bonnard ended this run of reflections in 1916 with one of his most complex, and carefully-composed: The Mantlepiece. He assumes an unusually low position, level with the surface of the mantlepiece and looking slightly up. Behind him is his nude model, who is unusually lit. On the wall behind her is a very long painting of a reclining nude, below which is a dressing table mirror with its fragmentary reflection reflected a second time in the large mirror. This fuses several disjoint images into one.
Bonnard then seems to have painted little mirror-play for fifteen years.
In 1931, he returned with The Toilette (Nude at the Mirror). Here his model stands in front of the mirror, but is not seen in reflection at all, only directly, leaving the reflection to reinforce the verticals of the window and curtain off to the right.
Nude before a Mirror from about 1933 is one of his last paintings in the series which he had started over twenty-five years earlier. His model stands slightly to one side of a full-length mirror, looking at that mirror. Miraculously, her reflection looks back at the viewer. As both the model and the viewer are to the right of the midline of the mirror, the viewer could only see the model’s reflection on the left side of the mirror if that mirror were angled so that its plane was parallel to her shoulders. Instead of showing us the model’s reflection, the mirror here reveals her doppelgänger.
Bonnard hadn’t finished with mirrors, though, showing their reflections in two of his last self-portraits.
In 1940 his reflection stands with both hands clenched and raised, reminiscent of his famous self-portrait The Boxer.
He repeats the mirror-play but with a different pose in his Portrait of the Artist in the Bathroom Mirror from between 1939-46.
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.