During the 1890s, Bonnard painted over fifty pictures of his family in the rooms and gardens of Le Grand-Lemps, their home in the Dauphin region of France. The present scene of an outdoor luncheon is a superb example of these peaceful, intimiste reflections on domestic life. Guy-Patrice Dauberville has identified the figures in the painting, clockwise from the left edge, as Bonnard's grandmother, mother, father, brother (in the center distance), and older sister Andre; Bonnard himself appears in the top right corner of the picture. A closely related view known as L'aprs-midi au jardin, of the same date and the same dimensions, is recorded in the supplement to Dauberville's catalogue raisonn as number 28.
The present picture is dense and closed-in, more like an interior than an outdoor scene; the sky is excluded from the landscape and the narrow strip of green at the top edge seems as much like wallpaper as it does like foliage. The figures are fused so tightly together, pressed so close to the picture plane, that the image takes unusually long to read, inviting slow and careful contemplation on the part of the viewer. As Sarah Whitfield has described this series of pictures:
These are mostly small, somber canvases, set in quiet, dimly lit interiors... There is always a feeling of closeness, of people living together, quietly going about the mundane household tasks, sitting down to meals together. The moments he chooses to paint are the soothing lulls that punctuate a domestic routine. These are intensely private pictures; as Raymond Cogniat observed: "Bonnard never paints the parts of the house where people work or receive visitors" (S. Whitfield, "Fragments of an Identical World," Bonnard, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1998, p. 10).
Goter au jardin is among the first of Bonnard's paintings to express the ideas of the Nabi circle, a group of young artists including Edouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis, Paul Srusier, and Flix Vallotton with whom Bonnard associated in the 1890s. The flattened perspective, exaggerated colors, and simplified forms of the present picture reflect the Nabi tenet that a painting is first and foremost a surface. As Denis later recalled, the Nabis strove for:
...expression through decorative quality, through harmony of forms and colors, through the application of pigments, to expression through subject. They believed that for every emotion, for every human thought, there existed a plastic and decorative equivalent, a corresponding beauty (quoted in J. Rewald, Pierre Bonnard, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1948, p. 15).
Mysterious and suggestive, Goter au jardin also recalls the Nabi artists' involvement with the Symbolist poet Stphane Mallarm. Less a physical depiction than a psychological evocation of an intimate family meal, the richly charged image yields its secrets ever so slowly, perfectly illustrating Mallarm's thesis:
The contemplation of objects, the images and flights of fancy arising from this contemplation--these constitute the song... To name an object is to destroy three-quarters of the pleasure we take in the poem, which is derived from the enjoyment of guessing by degrees; of suggesting it. That is our dream.
Symbolism is the perfect way to approach this mystery: one gradually conjures up an object so as to demonstrate a state of mind, or, conversely, one chooses an object which, when gradually deciphered, reveals a state of mind (quoted in S. Whitfield, op. cit., pp. 12-13).
Mrs. Caroline Hary, the present owner's grandmother, was living in Cit des Fusains in Paris, where Pierre Bonnard and a number of other artists kept their studios. She is said to have cooked for the artists and even served as a model for many of them.