Part 8: Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947)

As we continue to roll around the clock face that constitutes the Doctor’s Dozen series on the Serendipitous Compendium we find ourselves moving back across the Atlantic to mainland Europe, and an astonishing artist named Pierre Bonnard. Last time we considered the talents of Larry Rivers, who many consider as the first true American Pop artist. But his work owed a debt to Bonnard whose compositions he studied and whose style he very much admired.

Pierre Bonnard was a French painter and printmaker, as well as a founding member of the Post-Impressionist group of avant-garde painters Les Nabis.

Self-portrait (c. 1889), Pierre Bonnard [Private Collection]
Bonnard preferred to work from memory, using drawings as a reference, and his paintings are often characterized by a dreamlike quality.

‘Two Dogs in a Deserted Street’ (1894), Pierre Bonnard [National Gallery of Art, Washington DC]
The intimate domestic scenes, for which he is perhaps best known, often include his wife, Marthe de Meligny.

‘The Bath’ (1925), Pierre Bonnard [Tate, London]
Described as “the most thoroughly idiosyncratic of all the great twentieth-century painters”, what characterises his work are the unusual vantage points of his compositions. These paintings rely less on traditional modes of pictorial structure than voluptuous colour, poetic allusions and visual wit.

‘Coffee’ (1915), Pierre Bonnard [Tate London]
His often complex compositions—typically of sunlit interiors and gardens populated with friends and family members—are both narrative and autobiographical.

‘Paysage du Midi et deux enfants’ (1916-1918), Pierre Bonnard [Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto]
There’s an interesting link to another artist which will lead us to our next chapter. Pierre Bonnard, as well as being a painter was also a lithographer, and records suggest he is likely to have been acquainted with the American James Abbott McNeill Whistler around 1898.  A number of lithographs from this period are in the Portland Museum of Art, Maine.

‘Street Corner’ (c. 1987), Pierre Bonnard [Met]
Bonnard’s painting has been compared to Whistler’s, in its suggestion of uncertainty. In fact ideas on the vagueness and incompleteness of consciousness were popular at the time as espoused by the contemporary literature of Proust and Mallarmé. So we will follow this thread and see where it takes us!


‘Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea’ (1871), James Abbott McNeill Whistler [Tate, London]

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