Painted in 1923, Terrasse à Vernon is a colourist masterclass, showing the view from Ma Roulotte, the Norman home of Pierre Bonnard. This picture, which was one of only three that Bonnard selected to be exhibited at the Salon d'Automne that year, and which was very well-received, is saturated with luscious greens, lapis and turquoise, while the ground has a sunny feel that is enhanced by the glimmer of light of the young woman watching the artist - or the viewer. The composition itself deliberately avoids classical perspective or a sense of over-central emphasis, to drag the viewer's attention, ensuring that our eye grazes across the entirety of the canvas, taking in the landscape as a whole while also enjoying such details as the blue and white stripes of the table-cloth, the red petals of the flowers or the landscape that stretches out in the background, or rather which reaches up the height of the canvas to the horizon, two thirds of the way to its top. This is a device that Bonnard used in many of his most accomplished landscapes, satisfying his innate passion for monumental canvases filled with colour - the legacy of his Nabi past.
It was in 1888 that his friend Paul Sérusier had painted a work in the company of Paul Gauguin that came to be known as Le Talisman because of its epiphanic role in the movement. In that picture, Sérusier had learnt to abandon the illusion of three-dimensional space, creating a picture surface that had a decorative quality in its own right. This, combined with the Nabis' fascination with Japanese woodcuts, had led them to create pictures focussed on the colour-structure of their picture surfaces, avoiding any illusory perspectives. While Bonnard abandoned the rigours of such techniques in the period after the turn of the century, favouring instead the increasingly sensuous colourism that is displayed to such great effect in Terrasse à Vernon, it is telling that the lessons of previous decades had remained in the way that he constructed his pictures. While this is perhaps more explicit in the interior views that allowed him to play with windows, doors and walls, as well as the contrasting pools of landscape visible through the various apertures, it is nonetheless in evidence here, not least in his use of various dynamic diagonals within the forms of the trees, the banister and the sloping terrace itself, which introduce a zig-zagging effect, revealing the pictorial scaffolding with which Bonnard has so painstakingly created this image, a concept that would echo two and a half decades later through Mark Rothko's early abstract paintings. As Bonnard had explained of his work a decade earlier, 'after drawing comes the composition, which must be balanced. A well-composed painting is half done' (Bonnard, quoted in N. Watkins, Bonnard, London, 1994, p. 134). In similar terms, Bonnard wrote in his notes:
'Show nature when it's beautiful. Everything has its moment of beauty. Beauty is the fulfillment of seeing. Seeing is fulfilled by simplicity and order. Simplicity and order are produced by dividing legible surfaces, grouping compatible colors, etc' (Bonnard, quoted in A. Terrasse, 'Bonnard's Notes,' pp. 51-70, Bonnard: The Late Paintings, ed. S.M. Newman, exh.cat., New York, 1984, p. 69).
Bonnard had purchased his house at Vernonnet, christened Ma Roulotte, or 'My Caravan', in 1912, and it remained one of the key bases for his painting campaigns until the eve of the Second World War, by which time he was increasingly spending time in the South of France at Le Cannet. The sweeping views from his house provided ample subject matter for the artist. The house's location was also close to another great master, Claude Monet, whom Bonnard often visited. The pair had a great mutual admiration.
Terrasse à Vernon relates to several of Bonnard's views from his house and indeed is prefigured in part by his picture L'été en Normandie of 1908 now in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow. However, the presence of the terrace itself links it in particular to a group of very large landscapes that were painted over the space of over two decades. It has been posited that these were a form of response to his Monet's Grandes décorations now housed in the Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris. Like Monet, whose legendary gardens at Giverny were close-by, Bonnard was taking the Norman landscape and creating epic works that were décoratif. This began with La Grande Terrasse, also known as Le jardin sauvage, of 1918, now in the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Elements of that picture such as the table and the pool of warm light cast on the right-hand section where the woman is sitting are echoed in Terrasse à Vernon, as well as the pools of gold and lapis that comprise the countryside and river in the background. Subsequently, Bonnard revisited the view, seen from another angle that allows the house itself and the fence to enter the composition, in La Terrasse de Vernon of circa 1928, now in the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf. Another work of the same title (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), begun in 1920 but only completed in 1939, shares the descending banister, but has panned back, allowing more of the house and the terrace itself to enter the composition, which is peopled by several characters and is interrupted dramatically by a lilac-coloured tree which divides the picture-surface, recalling some of Edgar Degas' pictures of the ballet.
Terrasse à Vernon therefore forms a part of an intriguing arc within Bonnard's oeuvre, and within his engagement with his own beloved surroundings. Bonnard's friend Thadée Natanson, who was a frequent visitor to Ma Roulotte, praised these views while also linking them to the artist's sun-drenched views of the South of France:
'More than one painting or decoration derived from the terrace at La Roulotte, which Bonnard gazed out on a great deal. They are more especially a feast of greens, already enameled with these significant whites or these wonderful beiges and the cross play of the vegetation with all of its richness. Indeed at times, twists of succulent blue burst forth, festivals from which the work of Le Cannet would come. Loving studies of the foliage, each leaf... The feasts of the almost precisely rendered foreground crown the [trees in the] background, so distant and yet even more sonorous, although less detailed. These were already the harmony of melodies and bass lines, which would loudly accompany the more unexpected landscapes born of Le Cannet' (Natanson, quoted in Bonnard: The Late Paintings, ed. S.M. Newman, exh.cat., New York, 1984, p. 180).