In 1912, Bonnard purchased a modest, two-story residence at Vernonnet, a picturesque hamlet in the Seine valley not far from Giverny (fig. 1). Following his move, the artist increasingly turned for his subject matter to the rooms in which he lived, painting intimate still-life and interior compositions. Far from fleeting impressions, these paintings are meditations on the people, places, and things that surrounded Bonnard. He explained, "The artist who paints the emotions creates an enclosed world--the picture--which, like a book, has the same interest no matter where it happens to be. Such an artist, we may imagine, spends a great deal of time doing nothing but looking, both around him and inside him" (quoted in S. Whitfield, Bonnard, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1998, p. 9). Discussing Bonnard's work from this period, John Rewald has written, "With the exception of Vuillard, no painter of his generation was to endow his technique with so much sensual delight, so much feeling for the undefinable texture of paint, so much vibration. His paintings are covered with colors applied with a delicate voluptuousness that confers to the pigment a life of its own and treats every single stroke like a clear note of a symphony. At the same time Bonnard's colors changed from opaque to transparent and brilliant, and his perceptiveness seemed to grow as his brush found ever more expert and more subtle means to capture the richness both of his imagination and of nature" (in Pierre Bonnard, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1948, p. 48).
The present canvas is one of the largest and most complex in a series of floral still-lifes that Bonnard painted at Vernonnet (fig.2). It depicts a tall glass vase filled with an arrangement of peonies, gladioli, and greenery. The bouquet stands at the edge of a dining-room table, set against a backdrop of floral-patterned wallpaper. The flowers are casually arranged and slightly wilted; Bonnard's housekeeper, Antoinette Isnard, recalled that the artist never painted the blossoms that she picked for him straight away: "He let the flowers wilt and then he started painting; he said that way they would have more presence" (quoted in S. Whitfield, op. cit., p. 28). The palette of the painting is vivid and jewel-like, and the treatment of space is studied and intricate. Discussing this picture, Nicholas Watkins has written:
"Still-life, being the most manipulable of the genres, proved an ideal vehicle for Bonnard's aesthetic exploration. Without noticing we are drawn into the unfolding logic of a painting. A pool of white dissolves the black, tilted table top in Intérieur avec des fleurs, 1919, appearing to flow beyond it to the right, as if reflected in a mirror, and a patch of white occupies the floor. A plane is established, splitting the foreground from the background. Bonnard's problem in this painting was to achieve a psychological balance between the two: between the spare geometric forms and predominantly black and white color scheme of the foreground, and the exuberant organic patterns and hot colors of the background. Paintings begun in the memory of a visual experience encapsulated in a drawing were transformed through color into a rich, immensely varied surface made up of a tapestry of brushstrokes, glazes, scumbles, impasto, highlights, and pentimenti. Objects were not so much painted as felt into shape within the surface over a long period. 'It's not a matter of painting life,' Bonnard maintained, 'it's a matter of giving life to painting'" (N. Watkins, op. cit., pp. 168 and 171).
Another noteworthy feature of the present picture is its masterful depiction of light. The pools of white and yellow on the tabletop and the floor at the left are tangible signs for light streaming into the room through an unseen window, while the high-key palette of the flowers and wallpaper functions as an optical equivalent for intense, midday illumination. Bonnard spoke of the importance of light to his art, telling a visitor to his studio in 1941, "It is enough for the painter if windows are sufficiently large to allow the full radiance of daylight to penetrate, like lightening, so that all its nuances can strike everything it happens to encounter" (quoted in S. Whitfield, op. cit., p. 23). Likewise, a photograph of his studio at Le Cannet shows a group of small, creased sheets of silver paper, some of them patterned, tacked to the wall alongside an array of reproductions of the artist's favorite paintings. When Pierre Courthion asked Bonnard what function "those papers with shimmering colors" served, the artist replied that they allowed him to study the effects of light: "They help me to find my sparkles [mes brilliants]" (quoted in ibid., p. 43). Commenting on the depiction of light in the present painting, Watkins has written:
"From the evidence of his paintings, Bonnard was fully aware of the complex issues involved in the representation of light. Different conventions are juxtaposed in Intérieur avec des fleurs: value contrast, black against white, with the contrast of complementary and adjoining hues, red against green, orange against blue, and red against orange. White and yellow are also employed as alternative signs for light. Light, in combination with color, becomes a key factor in the organization of a painting. Objects are broken up by light in patterns of color across the surface, and the dialogue between object and color, color and pattern, pattern and surface, surface and pictorial depth becomes part of the content of a painting" (op. cit., p. 171).
Bonnard identified Japanese woodblock prints as a critical source of inspiration for the vivid palette of paintings such as Intérieur avec des fleurs: "It was through the contact with these popular images," he explained, "that I realized that color could express anything, with no need for relief or modeling. It seemed to me that it was possible to translate light, forms, and character using nothing but color, without recourse to values" (quoted in op. cit., exh. cat., Washington, D.C., 2002, p. 202). The artist first encountered Japanese graphic arts at dealer Siegfried Bing's sweeping survey at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1890. The exhibition made an enormous impression on Bonnard, who began searching Parisian department stores for examples of Japanese art: "There for the price of just one or two pennies, I found crépons and rice papers in astonishing colors. I covered the walls of my room with them" (quoted in ibid. p. 190). In photographs of Bonnard's studio from his later years, Japanese prints are still prominently displayed. Commenting on the influence of Japanese art in Bonnard's work after 1912, Ursula Perucchi-Petri has written, "Bonnard's late paintings blossom into freely executed color compositions that follow no law but their own. The intricately woven tapestry of color with its warp and weft of figures and objects draws proximity and distance together in a vibrant fabric. This lends the space a floating aspect, which is a continuation, albeit in another form, of the floating world inspired by East Asian art in his early works" (in ibid., p. 202).
Another key influence in the present painting is the art of Henri Matisse, Bonnard's close friend and frequent correspondent. In 1912, Bonnard purchased Matisse's brilliantly colored Fauve canvas, La fenêtre ouverte à Collioure, which he kept for the remainder of his life. The two painters also exchanged letters about the importance of color: "I agree with you," Bonnard wrote in 1935, "that the painter's only solid ground is the palette and colors, but as soon as the colors achieve an illusion, they are no longer judged" (quoted in ibid., p. 44). In Intérieur avec des fleurs, the juxtaposition of the bouquet of flowers and the floral-patterned wallpaper is particularly reminiscent of Matisse. Raised in a town of weavers in northeastern France, Matisse was fascinated with textiles throughout his career. He referred to his collection of fabrics, embroideries, wall-hangings, curtains, and carpets as "my working library" and took examples with him whenever he traveled (quoted in H. Spurling, Matisse, His Art and His Textiles: The Fabric of Dreams, exh. cat., Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2004, p. 16). During his yearly sojourns to the French Riviera between 1917 and 1930, Matisse made particularly lavish use of ornamental backdrops, painting both still-lifes and odalisques against boldly patterned wallpaper and textiles mounted on portable wooden screens (fig. 3). In a statement that could refer as easily to Matisse's work as to his own, Bonnard commented, "The principal subject is the surface, which has its color, its laws over and above those of objects" (quoted in N. Watkins, op. cit., p. 171).
(fig. 1) Pierre Bonnard, La terrasse à Vernonnet, 1918. Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. Barcode 23668195
(fig. 2) Pierre Bonnard, Fleurs avec poterie, 1913. Sold, Christie's, New York, 8 May 2000, lot 13. Barcode 23668188
(fig. 3) Henri Matisse, Les pavots (Feu d'artifice), 1919. Detroit Institute of Arts. Barcode 23668171