Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947)
Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947)

Sous l’arbre

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947)
Sous l’arbre
signed 'Bonnard' (lower left)
oil on canvas
20 ¼ x 23 5/8 in. (51.8 x 60 cm.)
Painted in Vernonnet, 1915
Galerie Bernheim-Jeune et Cie., Paris (acquired from the artist).
E. Heischer (by 1968).
Jean-Claude Delafon, Paris; sale, Sotheby Parke Bernet Inc., New York, 7 November 1979, lot 569.
Acquired at the above sale by John C. Whitehead.
J. and H. Dauberville, Bonnard: Catalogue raisonné de loeurve peint, 1906-1919, Paris, 1968, vol. II, p. 356, no. 828 (illustrated).
Achim Moeller Fine Art, ed., Late XIX and Early XX Century French Masters: The John C. Whitehead Collection, A Collection in Progress, New York, 1987, p. 16 (illustrated in color, p. 17).
Paris, Galerie Schmit, Tableaux de maîtres français, 1900-1955, May-June 1973, no. 5 (illustrated).
Montclair, Montclair Art Museum, Late XIX and Early XX Century French Masters: The John C. Whitehead Collection, April-June 1989, pp. 24 and 30, no. 1 (illustrated in color, p. 25).
New York, Achim Moeller Fine Art, The Whitehead Collection: Late 19th and 20th Century French Masters: A Collection in Progress, April-May 1997, p. 110, no. 68 (illustrated in color, p. 111).

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Brooke Lampley
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Lot Essay

In the deep, cooling shade of a towering tree, Marthe de Méligny–Bonnard’s lifelong partner and muse–sits alone and contemplative at a table set for a modest midday tea, absorbed in her reading. The setting is the lush, overgrown garden of Ma Roulotte, the house at Vernonnet near Giverny that Bonnard and Marthe purchased in 1912. The pervasive atmosphere is one of nostalgic reverie–of existence fleetingly registered on the boundary between reality and dreams.
“The artist who paints the emotions,” Bonnard maintained, “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” (quoted in Bonnard, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1998, p. 9). Here, the dense wall of foliage surrounding the garden creates the illusion of a private, cloistered space, insulated from the world beyond (the year was 1915, and war raged across Europe). Bonnard admits only a tiny glimpse of sky at the top right, its lugubrious mauve and indigo tones set off against the brilliant yellow light that subsumes the garden foliage, crowning the scene like a halo. The Cézannesque tilted tabletop, its boldly striped cloth the central visual protagonist in the scene, dwarfs Marthe’s diminutive figure. Her face and hands are rendered in the same deep red as her blouse and sunhat, so that she registers to the viewer as a human form only after a slight delay, almost as an afterthought. “This dreaming feminine presence, Marthe,” Sasha Newman has written, “is central to the underlying air of mystery, of hidden sadness in much of Bonnard’s art” (Bonnard: The Late Paintings, exh. cat., The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., 1984, p. 146).
Vernonnet, where Bonnard painted this richly colored and meditative scene, is situated on the banks of the Seine about seventy kilometers northwest of Paris. Following their purchase of Ma Roulotte, Bonnard and Marthe lived a profoundly peripatetic existence, spending the spring and summer months at Vernonnet and then traveling south to Saint-Tropez, Antibes, Cannes, and finally Le Cannet for the fall and winter. These contrasting experiences enabled Bonnard to bring out more intensely in his painting those qualities that he felt distinguished the two regions. The Île-de-France was the birthplace of Impressionism, a land of green gardens and fields, cloud-filled skies, and constantly changing weather and light; the Côte d’Azur was the enduring classical paradise of Signac, Matisse, and the aging Renoir, with a heightened palette and pervasive golden radiance. “For a realist from the north like Bonnard, southern light was a prerequisite for his emerging art of color,” Nicholas Watkins has explained. “[Yet] he needed, as he said, 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” (Bonnard, London, 1994, pp. 124 and 127).
For his recognition of the metamorphic power of light–which here transforms the unassuming garden at Vernonnet into a virtuoso and immensely varied tapestry of complementary hues–Bonnard was indebted in no small measure to his friend Monet, whose home at Giverny was just a short drive away. Like the latter in his celebrated late Nymphéas murals, Bonnard created out of the Normandy landscape an unerringly modern decorative art form: “The principal subject is the surface,” Bonnard proclaimed, “which has its color, its laws over and above those of objects” (quoted in ibid., p. 171). Yet while Monet retains, even at his most abstract, a quintessentially Impressionist emphasis on describing fleeting effects, Bonnard aimed to capture the remembrance of a visual experience, making notes in his journal of color patterns that sparked his impulse to begin a canvas and then painting from memory back in his studio. “When in 1931 Bonnard defined painting as un arrêt du temps (‘a stilling of time’) he implied a view of time very different from Impressionist instantaneity–from Monet’s serial moments of light,” Timothy Hyman has concluded. “Bonnard could not go, like Monet, in search of his motif; the moment had already flowered, involuntary and unsought” (Bonnard, London, 1998, p. 93).

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