In 1895, Ambroise Vollard commissioned from Pierre Bonnard an album of color lithographs entitled Quelques aspects de la vie de Paris. And though the present work can manifestly be considered a portrait, it in fact relates more closely to the spontaneous boulevard scenes of this printed series than to the baignoire nudes or commissioned portraits that fulfill the genre more conventionally. The woman in a blue hat does not strike the viewer as a discrete individual with a distinctive identity; rather, Bonnard uses her disposition to communicate the greater mood of Paris at dusk. Formal correspondences between this figure and her background unite the two in tone and purpose. The vertical stripes on her high-collared dress alliterate with the trees on the composition's left side, and the shadowy mass of her hat echoes the background's dominant purple form. Such correlations illustrate "Bonnard's view that the portrait should be placed within some larger pictorial context, and that the force of the image--its presence--should counterbalance the other elements in the composition" (M. Hahnloser-Ingold, Bonnard, exh. cat., The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., 1984).
John Russell likened Bonnard's techniques to those of a theatre practitioner, praising him for his "heightened sense of the moment, his lifelong sense of theater and his sharp focus on the human comedy" (ibid., p. 9). La femme au chapeau bleu captures a pregnant, if fleeting, moment from a stageworthy urban drama. Character and setting are conceived within a single aesthetic intention. Even Bonnard's use of light is strikingly theatrical, with Russell noting "the way in which [Bonnard] uses light as his accomplice" (ibid., p. 9). If Bonnard can be thought of, then, as a theatrical director, he is one who favored improvisation over heavy-handed staging. For "we know that often, while he was out walking, Bonnard would draw impromptu sketches on small scraps of paper, showing various human figures; he would then take these sketches back to his studio in order to give them definitive form and shape" (M. Hahnloser-Ingold in ibid., p. 71).
Through color and composition, Bonnard has here conjured an ominous atmosphere, in which an air of loneliness looms. This canvas inherits the theme of urban isolation set forth in the mid-19th century by Edgar Allen Poe's The Man of the Crowd; just as Poe describes, "the waver, the jostle and the hum" of the gas-lit city evening slowly give way to "an examination of individual faces," though the onlooker is still "prevented from casting more than a glance upon each visage". The subject is at once surrounded by fellow Parisians and completely alone; the other figures hug the picture's left edge, leaving the woman in a hat in her own state of solitude. The purples and yellows of the scene's liminal hour, combined with the enigmatic expression in the eyes of this parisienne, imbue this work with an intriguing ambiguity.