Bonnard, together with his friend Vuillard, had been the most secular-minded of the Nabi painters, many of whom pursued religious and spiritual aims in their art. Bonnard and Vuillard took their intimiste subjects from everyday urban and domestic life, content which kept their work lively, freshly observed and current beyond the late 1890s, when the heyday of the Nabi movement had passed. The synthétiste compositions of Gauguin may have been the initial inspiration for the strongly stylized and decorative Nabi aesthetic, but by 1900 the paintings of Bonnard and Vuillard had more in common with the Impressionists, especially Degas and Renoir. "When we discovered Impressionism a little later," Bonnard stated, "it came as a new enthusiasm, a sense of revelation and liberation. Impressionism brought us freedom." Jeune femme au chapeau bleu and other paintings of the first decade of the new century mark the initial phase of Bonnard's efforts to "pick up the research of the Impressionists, and to attempt to take it further" (quoted in T. Hyman, Bonnard, London 1998, p. 65).
Bonnard enjoyed painting with a model in front of him. Here the sitter may have been his companion Marthe, whom he met in 1893. They lived out of wedlock for the next several decades, and finally married in 1925. She established and defined the intimate ambience which characterized Bonnard's work from almost the very beginning; her presence became the very center of his life and art. The artist flattered Marthe's "birdlike" appearance by giving her a pertly upturned nose and pleasantly rounded cheeks. This aspect became frozen in time as the years went by, and Bonnard's hired models would often assume this look as well. The specific identity of the sitter aside, the subject of Jeune femme au chapeau bleu is Bonnard's affectionate vision of a modern cosmopolitan woman generally, in the person of a sophisticated parisienne attired in a plain but elegantly tailored black jacket, holding a fur muff in her lap, and peering out from under a large blue hat decorated with twirled clusters of taffeta.
During the years before the First World War, large hats, as imposingly tall as possible and profusely decorated, were the fashion mainstay for the modern woman as she stepped out into the public eye. Bonnard's emphasis on the great blue hat also reflects his admiration for Renoir, who enjoyed creating his own extravagant headwear for his female models. Timothy Hyman has written "In the early years of the century, something of Renoir's tender touch fed into [Bonnard's] own mark-making, along with a love of French Rococo painting in its most 'feminine' aspect. He learned much from the older artist's insistence that nature needed to be improved upon: 'It's true, isn't it Bonnard, we must always embellish'" (ibid., p. 67).
Nabi theories of pictorial composition had leaned heavily on the element of flatness in Japanese prints. Bonnard continued to manipulate space in his pictures in ever more subtle and ingenious ways that became a hallmark of his style. Observe how Bonnard has here contrasted the flatness of his sitter's form against the illusion of depth and receding space in the surrounding room. Standing close by but high above his model, Bonnard created a pronounced left-leaning diagonal tilt along the vertical axis of the composition, which he offset with the steep rise of the floor in the opposing direction. The relatively high line of the skirting board which demarcates the floor from the plane of the wall stabilizes the composition.
Bonnard must have been especially fond of Jeune femme au chapeau bleu, which features in the foreground of a photograph taken by Vuillard not long after it was completed (fig. 1). After having been first shown in 1909 in one of Bonnard's regular exhibitions at Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, it was one of two paintings that the artist brought with him when he traveled to Saint Petersburg and Riga in May-July 1910 and participated in the Salon Izdebski. In the following year Bernheim-Jeune sent it with another picture to the Munich Secession, where it found its first private buyer. On the occasion of an exhibition of recent works at Bernheim-Jeune, the poet and critic Guillaume Apollinaire wrote in 1910: "I like Bonnard's painting very much. It is simple, sensual, witty in the best sense of the word... I willingly abandon myself to the charms of M. Bonnard's cultivated and appealing manner... full of fantasy and ingenuousness" (L.C. Breunig, ed., Apollinaire on Art, Boston, 2001, p. 61).
(fig. 1) The wall of Bonnard's studio circa 1908, with Jeune femme au chapeau bleu at lower left. Photograph by Edouard Vuillard.
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