In 1939, with Europe on the brink of war, Bonnard decamped from Paris to his hermitage in Le Cannet, nestled into the hills above the Mediterranean. He preferred solitude to the creature comforts of neighboring Cannes--"for the sake of a little material well-being I would lose everything that forms the basis of my existence," he explained to Matisse, a regular correspondent during this time (quoted in M. Terrasse, Bonnard at Le Cannet, New York, 1988, p. 19). After the loss of his beloved wife Marthe, whose delicate health had limited Bonnard's contact with the outside world, he began to receive guests more frequently in Le Cannet. Among those welcomed to his studio was Gisèle Belleud, a young girl whom he invited to study with him during this time and who may be the sitter featured in Jeune femme peignant. Here, the young woman thoughtfully contemplates her work, as absorbed in the process of painting as she is into the background of Bonnard's studio, where she sits.
Bonnard worked by pinning his canvas to the single high wall in his studio, painting in the expansive light of the window visible in the distant background of Jeune femme peignant. The wooden railing which separated the raised mezzanine from the lower level of the studio is also faintly discernible just behind the young painter. Her proximity to the artist may reflect the close confines of his working space. For here, in order to apply his "distance test--to follow his injunction" to "place the canvas on the ground, against a wall in the open air, 10 metres away" in order to "know in advance the effect of the lines, of the volumes, of the colours that will be seen from a distance and what kind of power will remain"--he had to inconveniently climb the stairs to the mezzanine and peer down over the wooden railing (ibid., pp. 26 and 32).
Bonnard's use of compressed perspective and the evocation of intimate space by means of subtly modulated color values also had its source in Japanese ukiyo-e prints, from which the artist had long taken inspiration. "These plain, folkloristic pictures showed me that colour alone will suffice to express all one wants to say," he explained, "that there is no need for highlighting or modelling in painting. It seemed possible for me to reproduce light, shape and character by the use of colour alone, without the help of any valeurs" (quoted in A. Terrasse, "Some Thoughts on Pierre Bonnard," Bonnard, exh. cat., Galerie Salis, Salzburg, 1991, n.p.). The slightly off-centered compositional structure of Jeune femme peignant and its all-over, decorative flatness--the rug on the floor, the sitter's patterned blouse, and the curtained window all share the same plane--draw heavily on the decorative aesthetic of Japanese prints.
Coming near the very end of his life, the intimiste viewpoint in Jeune femme peignant also reflects back on Bonnard's beginnings as a Nabi painter in the early 1890s. Abstracting from the stylistic program of the Nabis, who favored flat areas of color and Japanese-inspired patterning devices, Bonnard has transformed the idea of sectioned flatness into vibrant and pulsating space by suffusing it with the glowing light of the Mediterranean. "His ultimate message was the apotheosis of color," declared John Rewald (in Bonnard, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1948, p. 56). By suppressing the value contrasts in adjoining areas in this painting, Bonnard had equalized the colors, creating a subtle and warmly intimate harmony ranging from lush cranberry-red to diffused, fleshy pinks, which he has orchestrated to create form a shimmering surface, a tapestry of evanescent forms woven as if from light and color.
(fig. 1) Henri-Cartier Bresson, Pierre Bonnard in his studio at Le Cannet, 1944. Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. BARCODE 25012569