The present painting depicts Marthe de Méligny, Bonnard's lifelong partner and muse (and from 1925, his wife), dozing by a window in the heat of a summer afternoon. The canvas was painted at Le Bosquet, a modest villa in the south of France where Bonnard and Marthe moved in 1927. Set on a hillside overlooking the village of Le Cannet, the two-story structure was surrounded by a lush, secluded garden and boasted a panoramic view of the bay of Cannes. Bonnard set to work renovating the house soon after he acquired it, adding a studio on the north side and installing large French windows that opened onto the garden. For the next two decades, Le Bosquet served as a continual source of creative inspiration for the artist. He turned for his subject matter more and more to the rooms in which he lived, painting intimate still-life and interior compositions. Far from fleeting impressions, these paintings are meditations on the people, places, and things that surrounded Bonnard. He explained, "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" (quoted in Bonnard, exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, London, 1998, p. 9). Marthe is a pervasive presence in these 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 at Le Bosquet: most often, the garden, the dining room, the small sitting room on the upper floor, 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). Femme endormie is one of only a very few canvases that depict Marthe in the studio itself, which is recognizable from the radiator and the steam pipe beneath the window. He painted a nude portrait of Marthe in this same spot in 1928 (Dauberville, no. 1405; fig. 2), and towards the end of his life, he himself was photographed there as well (fig. 1). In the present painting, Marthe has fallen asleep in a wicker arm chair, her head propped on the back of her hand. Although she was nearly sixty years old when the canvas was painted, Bonnard portrays her in her mid-twenties, the age that she was when they first met. 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).
In Bonnard's paintings of Marthe, she very rarely acknowledges the presence of the artist or the viewer; instead, she is shown sunken into her own thoughts, her head bowed in a posture of melancholy and self-absorption (fig. 3), or occasionally asleep, as here. How different these intimate, pensive images are from Bonnard's best-known portrayals of Renée Monchaty, his lover during the early 1920s, who turns in her chair to smile radiantly out of the scene (Dauberville, no. 1103; fig. 4). Newman has written, "This dreaming feminine presence Marthe... is central to the air of mystery, of hidden sadness in much of Bonnard's art" (ibid., p. 146). 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). In the case of the present painting, his initial impetus--that crucial, first visual idea that he would enrich and transform into a decorative whole--was most likely the ray of light that entered through the window and fell across Marthe's body as she dozed in a corner of his studio. Bonnard is known to have studied the effects of light by pinning small pieces of reflective foil wrappers to his studio wall and watching their scintillations, and in 1941 he told a visitor, "It is enough for the painter if windows are sufficiently large to allow the full radiance of daylight to penetrate, like lightning, so that all its nuances can strike everything it happens to encounter" (quoted in ibid., p. 23). Marthe's shirt is the bright yellow of the sun itself, and her flesh (like the wall behind her) is awash in rich orange light heightened by small patches of pale violet shadow. The vibrant coloring of the painting creates a visual tension with the meditative mood; the ray of light, entering the room like a sundial, suggests the passage of time, while Marthe herself seems still and unchanging, an image embalmed in memory. Sarah Whitfield has explained, "Bonnard is a painter of the effervescence of pleasure and the disappearance of pleasure. His celebration of life is one side of a coin, the other side of which is always present--a lament for transience" (ibid., p. 29).
In addition to serving as a direct source of light, the window in the present painting opens onto the garden surrounding Le Bosquet, providing a spatial link between two different realms of experience: the intimacy of the interior and the expansiveness of landscape. Bonnard radically crops the view through the window, however, leaving only a sliver of the outdoor vista visible; the private world of Le Bosquet--a space of both refuge and confinement--is more powerful here than the lure of an unlimited horizon. The inclusion of the window also recalls the conventional metaphor in art theory since the Renaissance of painting as a window. Bonnard creates a frame around the sliver of landscape with the orange and violet window sill, the steam pipe, and a series of narrow blue and brown stripes that may represent window molding and/or the steam pipe's shadow (and which bear no small resemblance to a canvas by Morris Louis (fig. 5), who is known to have studied Bonnard's work at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.). It is as though we are looking not at a fragment of actual landscape but at the edge of a landscape painting, hung on the studio wall. Watkins has concluded, "A window proved an infinitely flexible device. Like a painting, it acts both as an opening and a barrier, a three-dimensional view and an object in its own right. By distancing life from function, allowing the world to be viewed aesthetically, the window itself became a sign of the contemplative process of painting, and its ramifications went back to the very roots of Bonnard's ambitions as an artist; for it enabled him to reconcile the perceptual experience of nature with the decorative surface" (op. cit., pp. 171-172).
(fig. 1) Bonnard in his studio at Le Bosquet, 1945. Photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson.
(fig. 2) Pierre Bonnard, Nu au radiateur, 1928. Sold, Christie's, London, 20 June 2006, lot 122.
(fig. 3) Pierre Bonnard, Le corsage rayé, circa 1922. Sold, Christie's, New York, 8 November 2006, lot 70.
(fig. 4) Pierre Bonnard, Jeunes femmes au jardin, circa 1921-1923 (re-worked 1945-1946). Private Collection.
(fig. 5) Morris Louis, Number 1-98, 1962. Private collection.