We are grateful to Guy Patrice and Michel Dauberville for confirming that this picture is included in their Bernheim-Jeune Archives as an authentic work.
Like many of the young artists who were affiliated with the modernist avant-garde on the cusp of the 20th century, Bonnard was a quick and early starter, and he made some remarkable pictures before he was only twenty-five. Painted in 1891, Etude pour 'L'après-midi au jardin' represented the cutting-edge style of a new anti-naturalist tendency in the arts, derived from the Symbolist movement in literature led by the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, whose creed was "to paint, not the thing itself, but the effect it produces" (quoted in H. Weinfield, trans., Stéphane Mallarmé: Collected Poems, Berkeley, 1994, p. 169). Only the year before, painting for Bonnard had been a part-time vocation; having taken a degree in law, he worked a day job as a minor government official. He had recently completed his obligatory military service and returned to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He had begun his art studies in 1885, when he was eighteen, but he was able to apply himself only intermittently. Bonnard was fortunate, however, to fall in with other young painters who were eager to seize upon new ideas. In 1887 he took classes at the Académie Julian, were he met Paul Sérusier, Henri-Gabriel Ibels, Paul Ranson and Maurice Denis.
Bonnard soon left behind--or "tried to unlearn," as he put it--the lessons and practices of an academic studio education, a process abetted by two significant events that initiated him into the new art of his day. The first occurred in October 1888. Bonnard was present when Sérusier returned from a stay in Pont-Aven and showed his friends at the Académie Julian a small landscape he had painted on the lid of a cigar box under the guidance of Paul Gauguin. This picture was like no other they had ever seen; the woodland and pond-side scene had been composed with pure, brilliant colors applied in a patch-like arrangement on the little panel. It was an epiphany--they immediately recognized that this was the art of the future, and they called this magical painting Le talisman (Guicheteau, no. 2; Musée d'Orsay, Paris). They formed their own society of the initiated, and called themselves 'Nabis,' from the Hebrew word for prophet. In 1890 Denis published his celebrated dictum that "a picture--before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote--is essentially a plane surface covered with colors in a certain order" (quoted in G. Groom, Beyond the Easel, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2001, p. 17). The example of Gauguin remained important to Bonnard throughout his career, and near the end of his life he kept a postcard reproduction of Gauguin's La vision après le sermon (Wildenstein, no. 245/308; fig. 2) on his studio wall, as seen in a photograph taken by Cartier-Bresson in 1944.
Bonnard applied the flat, outlined forms of Gauguin's synthétiste style to a poster design he made in competition for the France-Champagne company in 1889, which won him the first prize of a hundred francs. It was eagerly sought after when it was printed and distributed in 1891. With the first earnings from his art, he decided to commit himself to painting, and met two other young artists who would become his closest friends, Edouard Vuillard and Ker-Xavier Roussel. They shared an interest in Japanese prints, and indeed, the second major event in Bonnard's studies occurred in May 1890, when he viewed the most extensive survey seen to date in Paris of ukiyo-e woodcuts and illustrated books, organized by Siegfried Bing, the pioneering importer and dealer of japonaiserie, at the Ecole des Arts Décoratifs. Bonnard began to collect inexpensive Japanese popular prints known as crépons, which sold for pennies in department stores. He later recalled, "I covered the walls of my room with this naïve and gaudy art. Gauguin and Sérusier alluded to the past. But what I had in front of me was something tremendously alive and extremely clever I realized after contact with these rough common images that color could express everything with no relief or texture. I understood that it was possible to translate light, shapes and characters alone, without the need for values" (quoted in Pierre Bonnard: Early and Late, pp. 28-29). Bonnard went on to collect the works of the great ukiyo-e masters (fig. 2), which he hung on his studio walls.
Bonnard's friends called him "le nabi très japonard," and Signac observed that if one traced the outlines of the France-Champagne poster, "one would get the contours of an Utamaro" (quoted in ibid., p. 29). While the Nabis circle shared an interest in the flat and decorative surface of sythétisme, Bonnard--and Vuillard as well--avoided from the outset the mystical and religious subject matter to which many of their colleagues had gravitated as they played out their infatuation with Gauguin's Symbolist conception of pictorial content. Bonnard chose instead to treat secular subjects drawn from daily life. He especially admired Degas and Lautrec; John Rewald observed that ''Their approach and treatment of their subjects must have encouraged Bonnard to turn his back on Symbolism and focus his attention on what he had always loved, his surroundings. Thus Bonnard set out to capture in his work what no other painter of his time had observed: the little incidents of Parisian life Bonnard descended into the streets and squares, watching with equal interest people, horses, dogs, and trees" (in Pierre Bonnard, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1948, pp. 24-25).
Etude pour 'Laprès-midi au jardin' is a snapshot of daily domestic life, in which members of Bonnard's family enjoy a late afternoon aperitif in the cool shade of their garden. The artist has depicted this occasion extremely close-up, as if the viewer were also seated at the table. The constricted sense of space is more like an interior setting than an outdoor scene; Bonnard's rendering of the foliage is similar to the patterning of a wall-paper. Guy-Patrice Dauberville has identified the figures, from left to right, as Bonnard's grandmother, his mother (gazing downward from the upper edge of the picture), his father (wearing a hat), his older brother Charles (in the center distance), and his younger sister Andrée, whose pleasing countenance is seen in three-quarter view. Bonnard himself appears in the upper right corner, above the head of a partly-concealed woman, the shoulder of whose dotted pink blouse comprises a central color motif in the picture. The family's black and white cat occupies the lower right side of the picture. Bonnard painted another version of this scene, in which the left side is dominated by large blossoms of white hydrangea (illustrated in J. and H. Dauberville, Bonnard, catalogue de l'oeuvre peint revisé et augmenté 1888-1905, Paris, 1992, p. 10, no. 28A).
Bonnard has here reduced all the forms of the figures and their attire into sinuously contoured, flat color shapes, in the Japanese manner. He wanted, as he said, "to see form simply as a flat silhouette" (quoted in T. Hyman, Bonnard, London 1998, p. 21). Bonnard has reveled in teasing the eye, forcing the viewer to take the time to unravel the forms in order to read the content of his picture. Indeed, the viewer's eye reads various shapes first as color forms, before it becomes apparent precisely what they represent. Bonnard talent for this pictorial sleight of hand in his most striking and radical early Nabis pictures, such as Femmes au chien, also painted in 1891 (Dauberville, no. 20; fig. 3).
This manner of painting is purely synthetic and decorative, and therein lays the artist's ongoing debt to Gauguin. This approach completely abjures the traditional naturalism and illusionism of Western painting, and is non-Impressionist as well. It was controversial, and the elderly Impressionists disliked the Nabis' paintings. Some critics, however, were more sympathetic and forward-looking. Claude Roger-Marx, reviewing Bonnard's paintings in the 1893 Salon des Indépendants, wrote that the artist ''is one of the most spontaneous, most strikingly original temperaments... M. Bonnard catches instantaneous poses, he pounces upon unconscious gestures, he captures most fleeting expressions; he is gifted with the ability to select and quickly absorb the pictorial elements in any scene, and in support of this gift he is able to draw upon a delicate sense of humor, sometimes ironic, always very French" (quoted in J. Rewald, op. cit., p. 24).
Mme Caroline Hary, whose heirs sold this painting at Christie's New York in 1998, lived in the Cité des Fusains, a building at 22, rue Tourlaque in Montmartre, in which Bonnard rented a studio in 1911. She modeled and even cooked for the artist, and received this painting as a gift from him.
(fig. 1) Paul Gauguin, La vision après le sermon, 1888. Courtesy of The National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh. BARCODE 25238488
(fig. 2) Utagawa Kuniyoshi, Historical Scene, woodblock print, mid 19th century. Private collection, formerly owned by Pierre Bonnard. BARCODE 25238495
(fig. 3) Pierre Bonnard, Femmes au chien, 1891. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts. Copyright 2007 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris BARCODE 25238501