Bonnard painted Jardin en Dauphiné at his family's ancestral home Le Clos (The Orchard) in the village of Le Grand-Lemps (fig. 1). The house, which was surrounded by a large garden and ten acres of woodland, was tucked away in the former province of Dauphiné (now Isère) in the southeast corner of France, midway between Lyon and Grenoble at the base of the French Alps. Bonnard had spent school breaks at Le Clos as a child and a young man and was strongly attached to the estate, which had originally belonged to his paternal grandfather Michel, a farmer and grain merchant. He continued to vacation there from the early years of his career until the house was sold in 1928, often staying for several weeks in the spring. His sister Andrée, her husband Claude Terrasse, and the couple's six children, born between 1892 and 1899, also spent holidays there and became something of a surrogate family for Bonnard (fig. 2). Timothy Hyman has called the estate "one of the fixed points of the artist's existence from his childhood until well into his fifties" (Bonnard, London, 1998, p. 70), and it represents a key theme of his art as well. Indeed, Bonnard would later date the first crystallization of his full painterly identity to a summer in the Dauphiné in 1895: "One day all the words and theories which formed the basis of our conversation-- color, harmony, the relationship between line and tone, balance-- seemed to have lost their abstract application and become concrete. In a flash I understood what I was looking for and how I would set about achieving it" (quoted in ibid., p. 35).
During the latter half of the 1890s, following this creative breakthrough, Bonnard painted some of his greatest Nabi canvases at Le Clos, mostly intimate, windowless interior scenes that depict members of his family as they eat, sew, and read. After 1900, his focus shifted to the gardens surrounding the house, which were infused with the light and lushness of the rural Dauphiné. Here, he painted charming and unaffected images of bourgeois leisure and youthful diversions, such as the present scene of three children playing with their dog in the shade of a large tree. These images boast the same sense of immediacy as the many candid photographs that Bonnard took of the Terrasse children in the garden at Le Clos near the turn of the century, and they form a marked contrast with the unabashedly erotic nudes that Bonnard was painting in his Paris studio around the same time (e.g. Dauberville, nos. 219, 224, 227). In old age, Bonnard would publish his reminiscences of Le Clos in the form of a series of letters, focusing on vignettes that could well act as descriptions for some of his early outdoor paintings: picking fruit in the orchard, the Terrasse children cooling off in the ornamental pool in the garden, an inquisitive cow sticking its head through the window of the house. Nicholas Watkins has explained, "Bonnard's annual holidays at Le Clos were for him a return to an earthly paradise, a place of childhood innocence" (Bonnard, London, 1994, p. 16).
Painted in 1901, Jardin en Dauphiné bears witness to a critical juncture in Bonnard's career, characterized by a mounting tension between his achievements in the Nabi style and his burgeoning interest in Impressionism. Bonnard had been profoundly affected by the exhibition of Caillebotte's bequest of Impressionist paintings at the Musée du Luxembourg in 1897 and by a series of Impressionist exhibitions at the Galerie Durand-Ruel between 1896 and 1900; in 1898, he met Renoir, whom he would quickly come to regard as "a rather severe father" (quoted in T. Hyman, op. cit., p. 67). Bonnard would later explain, "I remember very well that at that time I knew nothing about Impressionism, and we admired Gauguin's work for itself and not in its context. When we discovered Impressionism a little later, it came as a new enthusiasm, a sense of revelation and liberation, because Gauguin is a classic, almost a traditionalist, and Impressionism brought us freedom" (quoted in ibid., p. 52). By the turn of the century, Bonnard had come to adopt many of the hallmarks of Impressionism, including a white ground, broken and visible brushstroke, and open-air subject matter. Gloria Groom has written, "By 1899 the Nabi group had all but disbanded as personal circumstances and professional distractions divided them further. It was about this time that Bonnard chose to reinvent his art by turning toward the lighter palette and outdoor, middle-class subjects of Impressionism... It was as if, having exploited Gauguin's anti-naturalist and indeed anti-Impressionist principles, Bonnard was now able to appreciate aspects of Impressionism for the first time--especially its nature-derived chromatics, to which he would add a calculated decorative structure. The decorative remained central to his work but the emphasis shifted, as his figures were modeled and liberated by light" (Pierre Bonnard: Observing Nature, exh. cat., National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1993, p. 97).
Impressionism proved to be merely a starting point for Bonnard, however, not an end in itself. Some three decades later, the artist recalled, "When my friends and I decided to pick up the research of the Impressionists and try to take it further, we wanted to outshine them in their naturalistic impressions of color. Art is not Nature. We were stricter in composition. There was a lot more to be got out of color as a means of expression" (quoted in N. Watkins, op. cit., p. 61). In the present painting, this heightened concern for composition is reflected in the dark canopy of foliage that frames the scene at the top and the deep shadows that surround the children and their dog, both rendered as flat, undulating forms that harken back to Bonnard's Nabi work (compare, for example, the foliage at the top edge of fig. 3). The principal visual drama of the painting is found in the contrast between these heavy patches of shadow at the top and bottom of the composition and the white light that washes across the riotous jumble of foliage in the middle ground, bleaching the leaves to a pale, silvery green. Eschewing the vast, cloud-flecked skies of the quintessential Impressionist landscape, Bonnard has compressed the scene and blocked off the horizon, faithful to his bent toward an enclosed, intimate view. The artist would revisit this compositional strategy in later years at Vernonnet, the famously untamed vegetation of his garden there creating a screen between the viewer and the landscape that leaves only small passages of open country visible (fig. 4). The dramatic contrasts between light and shade in the present painting also foreshadow the conflict between the transient light of the Seine valley and the heavy atmosphere of the Midi which would preoccupy Bonnard in his artistic maturity. Watkins has explained, "He needed the lush pastures and passing clouds of the north as a fitting complement to the heat and timelessness of the south, in the same way that an intense red engenders a green after-image" (ibid., p. 127).
The first owner of the present painting was Ambroise Vollard, a dealer of singular influence in Paris during the extraordinarily fertile period that spawned the Nabis, the Fauves, and the Cubists. Vollard represented Bonnard from 1893, when he established his pioneering gallery in the Rue Laffitte, until 1900, when Bonnard transferred his allegiance to the Bernheim-Jeune brothers (although he continued to exhibit with Vollard as late as 1906). Bonnard was Vollard's favorite among the Nabis and the only one whose work Vollard seems to have actively collected. His purchases at auction, through dealers, and from the artist himself, did not stop even after Bonnard changed his gallery affiliation; some of these paintings remained in Vollard's collection throughout his life, suggesting the personal meaning that they held for him. In turn, Bonnard made at least eight depictions of Vollard between 1904 and 1924: five oil portraits and an etching of the dealer relaxing with his beloved cat (Dauberville, nos. 303-304, 306, 1259-1260; Bouvet no. 89) an an oil sketch of Vollard presiding over a lively dinner party (Dauberville, no. 441); and a drawing of the dealer in his gallery, part of a series of vignettes commemorating important people and places in Bonnard's career (Musée d'Orsay, Paris).
(fig. 1) The home of the Bonnard family at Le Grand-Lemps, 1890.
(fig. 2) Pierre Bonnard, La Famille Terrasse (L'Après-midi bourgeoise), 1900. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
(fig. 3) Pierre Bonnard, Etude pour "L'Après-midi au jardin", circa 1891. Sold, Christie's, New York, 9 May 2007, lot 30.
(fig. 4) Pierre Bonnard, Balcon à Vernonnet, 1920. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Brest.