In an intimate corner of a domestic interior, a young woman sits facing the viewer, contemplating something unknown to us. She is most likely Marthe de Méligny, whom Bonnard met by chance on a Paris street late in 1893; pensive and moody, she became his lifelong companion and muse. “Though Bonnard never called her by her real name [Maria Boursin], never met her real family, she maintained a real presence in his life and inhabited the spaces of his work until the day she died,” Elizabeth Hutton Turner has written. “Her body and the physical closeness of their relationship engaged the painter as no other subject” (Pierre Bonnard: Early and Late, exh. cat., The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., 2002, p. 60).
Marthe is a pervasive presence in Bonnard's paintings, sometimes hovering on the periphery of the scene, other times (as here) providing the focal point of the composition. Timothy Hyman has written, "After 1923 Bonnard's art becomes 'about' Marthe, centered in this single person, to a degree unprecedented in any earlier painting...It was his desire to draw and paint her, more than anything else, that brought about the development of his style, from its brilliant decorative beginnings to the formal strength and realism of its maturity" (Bonnard, London, 1998, p. 129).
Bonnard depicted Marthe in a variety of different spaces in their home: most often, the garden, the dining room, their small sitting room, and the bathroom, where she spent hours each day washing and soaking as a treatment for chronic ill health. His working practice was to sketch from life and then paint from memory in the studio; as he explained, "There is always the risk with direct observation that [the painter] will become sidetracked by incidentals and lose sight of the initial idea" (quoted in Pierre Bonnard: The Late Still Lifes and Interiors, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2009, p. 64).
Sasha Newman has explained, "As Marthe aged, Bonnard continued to paint her looking almost exactly as she had done when young. One can sense the idealism, the tenderness, and the dreams of his youth which inspired these images of the solitary, haunting figure of Marthe" (Bonnard: The Late Paintings, exh. cat., Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., 1984, p. 196). The paintings of Marthe often suggest a stolen glance of a private moment; Bonnard strove "to show what one sees when one enters a room all of a sudden," as he wrote in his diary (quoted in op. cit., exh. cat., 1998, p. 37).