Throughout his career, Bonnard remained committed to probing the expressive nature of pictorial construction. As he observed, ‘The artist who paints the emotions creates an enclosed world — the picture — which, like a book, has the same interest no matter where it happens to be. Such an artist, we may imagine, spends a great deal of time doing nothing but looking, both around him and inside him.’
Bonnard was born in 1867 into a middle-class family. At his parents’ insistence he obtained a law degree, but shortly thereafter turned to art, studying at the École des Beaux-Arts and the Académie Julian where he met Maurice Denis, Paul Sérusier, Félix Vallotton and Édouard Vuillard, the latter of whom became a lifelong friend. With them, Bonnard helped to found Les Nabis (Hebrew for ‘Prophets’), a movement interested in the symbolic and spiritual possibilities of art. These artists drew inspiration from the Japanese woodblock prints then in vogue, applying their pigments in swathes that emphasised the flatness of the canvas.
Bonnard frequently painted domestic scenes in which he sought — as he noted in his diary — ‘to show what one sees when one enters a room all of a sudden,’ and alongside Vuillard, came to be known as an intimiste. He depicted partially completed meals, figures lit by oil lamps, nudes sprawled across the bed or in the bath. Marthe de Méligny, his wife, served as a model for many of his compositions including Baignoire (Le Bain), La salle de bain and La Salle à manger sur le jardin.
From almost the start of his bourgeoning career, Bonnard produced prints, creating more than 250 lithographs between 1899 and 1902, most of which were designed to be independent advertisements, announcements or illustrations for avantgarde publications such as La Revue blanche, the literary magazine. Unlike many artists who adjusted their colour selections during the printing process, Bonnard made his choices in advance and rarely wanted changes. His first album of prints was published by the storied dealer Ambroise Vollard in 1897.
With the turn of the century came a shift in Bonnard’s output as he moved away from the Nabis aesthetic. His work started to receive more widespread acclaim, and Bonnard participated in the Salon d’Automne and the Vienna Secession, among other prestigious exhibitions. In around 1908, he started to paint landscapes, first in northern France, and then, beginning in 1910, the south of the country. He and Marthe eventually moved permanently to Le Cannet, near to Cannes. Such canvases continued to probe the relationship between perception and representation, and Bonnard worked on the same recurrent themes and scenes as he reimagined subjective vision.
In 1946, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, organised a retrospective of the artist’s work; the following year, Bonnard passed away in Le Cannet.