Bonnard's La Plage (Arcachon) is a sumptuous visual hymn to life and light in the South of France of the early 1920s, capturing a modern vision of paradise and fashionable repose against the backdrop of the lapis-blue Mediterranean.
Bonnard had already honed his skills as a colorist in the north of France, even before his fascination with the South flowered. Recent scholarship has made much of the contrast that Bonnard explored in his paintings between the North and the South, and between realism and idealism. His ever-increasing interest in the South and its seeming timelessness and endurability had even taken a mythological turn in some pictures, recalling Matisse's early masterpiece Le bonheur de vivre in the Barnes Foundation. In La Plage (Arcachon) we are thus presented with an almost Arcadian theme, as beach-goers rest and socialize along the sands of the Mediterranean, yet it has undergone a transformation and reappeared under a distinctly 1920s light rather than the more explicitly mythological scene of works such as Le paradis terrestre (Dauberville, no. 867a).
In La Plage (Arcachon) Bonnard has eschewed strict realism to concentrate on the fields of color, employing broad horizontal bands to represent the sky, sea and beach. Even the figures in the foreground are presented as color fields, rather than finely articulated and detailed portraits. It is through this colorist musicality that La Plage (Arcachon) wields its power, its composition filling it with visual, almost legible, rhythms, its various oils meeting in a symphony of expression. This ability to translate with great intensity his experiences or memories through color had been a constant thread throughout Bonnard's career. His status as arch-colorist is in part due to his instinctive ability to capture a concentrated, vibrant image of the world through his oils. He had used this to good effect when he worked among the Nabis; the Nabis did not believe in representing the world directly, but in trying to capture the soul or essence of their subject. Their colors were intense in order to provoke intense reactions and emotions, in short, to transmit experience and not just information. Bonnard had shed his interest in Symbolism long before La Plage (Arcachon) was painted, yet his colorism is intended to carry out much the same process. Indeed, Bonnard has surpassed the art of his Impressionist and Symbolist predecessors to create a painting that truly transmits the heat and the light of the South.
It is a tribute to the quality of La Plage (Arcachon) that it passed through the hands of industrialist and distinguished collector Henri Canonne, who possessed a dazzling array of Impressionist masterpieces which he assembled just as the movement was gaining recognition. Canonne's collection included seventeen of Claude Monet's Nymphéas, as well as pictures by Bonnard, Paul Cézanne, Camille Pissarro, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Signac, Alfred Sisley and Edouard Vuillard, many of which now grace the walls of prominent museums.