Matisse once remarked on seeing the Bonnard paintings in the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., that "Bonnard is the greatest (painter) among us." In the early 20th century, Matisse was one of the few painters who understood Bonnard's treatment of the picture plane. Both artists would employ the same innovative flattening of the paint surface and reduction of perspective, so that no one area of the composition dominated. Equal emphasis is placed on the borders either through intense areas of color, or by providing an enigmatic quality to the perceived focal point of the composition. Femme à la violette employs these effects to create an image that is at once sensual and yet fraught with emotion. The eye initially focuses on the woman; however the merging of the woman's hat with the background combined with the enveloping of the face with the veil, creates a claustrophobic atmosphere, in which the brightly colored wall and the landscape painting against which it leans take on equal prominence with the sitter. The vibrant colors saturate the canvas and remind us of Maurice Denis' Nabi theorem that "a picture is basically a flat surface with paints put together in a certain order."
Bonnard also had a significant influence on the Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko, despite the group's wish to move away from the ideals of the School of Paris. Spurred by the Museum of Modern Art's Bonnard retrospective in 1948, Rothko developed a new awareness towards color. In the Pace Gallery show of 1997 entitled Bonnard/Rothko: Color and Light, Bernice Rose, former curator of drawings at MoMA, makes the case for Bonnard's influence on the paintings that Rothko entitled dramas, perhaps the most beautiful paintings of his entire oeuvre. She wrote:
This extended period of exploration (1948-9) seems to have been resolved after another encounter with Bonnard during the latter's 1948 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. The exhibition at the museum was larger than the Bignou show, with painting after painting creating a strong picture of Bonnard's work. The early Multiforms had taken note of Bonnard's color strategies, the irregular outlines of the forms, and to some extent the brushwork; Rothko had concentrated on Bonnard plane by plane, treating each as a whole painting, concentrating on the forms as abstractions.
In spite of the appreciation of two of the last century's masters, it is only in the last two decades that the enigmatic nature of Bonnard's work has been accepted. His cynicism towards the myopic public is best summarized in his own words, "Speaking, when you have something to say, is like looking," he said. "But who looks? If people could see, and see properly, and see whole, they would all be painters. And it's because people have no idea how to look that they hardly ever understand" (quoted in H. Kramer, "Bonnard and the 'stupidities'," The New Criterion, October, 1998, vol. 17, no 2).
(fig. 1) Mark Rothko, 1949. Hirshhorn Museum of Sculpture, Washington, D.C.