Glowing with light and warmth, Bonnard's Bord de mer, sous les pins is a colourist extravaganza, a sumptuous visual hymn to life and beauty. He has created an enticingly paradoxical image, a fashionable scene of bucolic repose from the early 1920s. In it, we see a picnic being enjoyed from a dramatic viewpoint, saturated with the heat and light of the South of France. The deep, deep blue of the Mediterranean draws the viewer in with its lushness and lapis-like intensity. The importance of this painting is shown in Bernheim-Jeune's decision to exhibit it the same year as it was painted. Only a few years later, in 1924, the prominent critic Claude Roger-Marx reaffirmed the painting's status by selecting it as one of the few illustrated works in his small but important 1924 monograph on the artist.
Bonnard had already honed his skills as a colourist in the north of France, even before his fascination with the South flowered. Recent scholarship has made much of the contrast that Bonnard explored in his paintings between the North and the South, and between realism and idealism. His ever-increasing interest in the South and its seeming timelessness and endurability had even taken a mythological turn in some pictures, recalling Matisse's early masterpiece Le bonheur de vivre in the Barnes Foundation. In Bord de mer, sous les pins we are thus presented with an almost Arcadian theme, with people resting and feasting beneath the pines of the Mediterranean, yet it has undergone a transformation and reappeared under a distinctly 1920s light, rather than the more explicitly mythological scene in Le paradis terrestre, completed the previous year. In Bord de mer, sous les pins, Bonnard has presented a modern vision of paradise.
Bonnard had to spend an increasing amount of his time in the South of France, not least for reasons of his wife Marthe's health. It seems likely that Bord de mer, sous les pins depicts Marthe with her dog Black and other close friends on the coast near St Tropez where he spent the winter of 1920 and Spring of 1921 with his old friend Henri Manguin. As an artist occupying the South and making it so integral to his work, Bonnard had long been drawn to the intoxicating light, as well as the deep art historical associations of the area. The distant mountains in Bord de mer, sous les pins are expressly painted using the visual idiom of Cézanne, Bonnard painting the late Master of Aix's territory in his own language. Likewise, the intense colours of this painting recall the Fauvism of Matisse that Bonnard had ostensibly shrugged off, evident likewise in paintings of the South such as his 1904 image of the Gulf of Saint-Tropez.
In a break with the landscape tradition that would feature in some of Bonnard's most celebrated masterpieces, he has paid almost no attention to the sky, allowing the sea to be the main focus, framed by the near and distant land. This allows Bonnard to fill the canvas with fields of colour, with visual activity, rather than presenting us with a large blue field at the top of the work. It is through this colourist musicality that Bord de mer, sous les pins has its power, its composition filling it with visual, almost legible, rhythms, its various oils meeting in a symphony of expression.
Like many of the great large oil of the period Bord de mer, sous les pins is a landscape painting of the highest order which combines a narrative in progress. In this it has many of the same qualities as the celebrated Gould painting La terrasse à Vernon of 1920-1939 now in The Metropoloitan Museum of Art. There is an intriguing domesticity to the subject matter in this painting, to the scattering of the figures, implying that they are all close to the artist himself, that he is part of the picnic group in his own right, reflecting one of his own criteria for painting: 'One must feel that the painter was there, that he was aware of things in their own light, conceived from the beginning' (Pierre Bonnard, quoted in Terrasse, ibid., 1984, p. 52). This adds an extra intensity to the sense of general enjoyment in the piece, the experience of the picnic being one that was enjoyed by Bonnard himself, and which, through the act of painting, he is allowing us to share.
The present painting was amongst a group of 24 works which Bonnard exhibited at Galerie Berheim-Jeune in 1921.This particular year he chose to show at Bernheim rather than exhibit at the Salon. Painted on the grand scale, this highly complicated and refined composition hung alongside several other full scale pieces including his celebrated group of large format decorations executed between 1916 and 1920. These included his Symphonie pastorale (D.866), Mediterranée (D.867), Le Paradis terrestre (D.867a; The Art Institute of Chicago) and Les travailleurs à la Grande Jatte (D.868:The National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo). The majority of works in the show were Mediterranean landscapes suffused with the striking light and colours of the region. Along with the Onstad paintings by Bonnard, Bord de mer, sous les pins reflects an interesting aspect of Scandinavian collecting, having been purchased by January 1939 by the Kunstnernes Hus in Oslo, a provenance that also reflects the picture's quality.