Bonnard often depicted infants and young children in his early paintings; their presence is often responsible for much of the charm in his Nabi pictures. His subjects were frequently the young daughters and sons of relatives and friends in the arts. After 1905 children feature less frequently in Bonnard's work, as the artist concentrated more exclusively on subjects for which his companion, and later wife, Marthe served as model, most notably the famous bathing scenes and interiors.
In 1929, Jacques Lecomte de Noüy commissioned Bonnard to paint his young daughter Isabelle. Lecomte de Noüy, a noted architect and archeologist, was the son of the important Orientalist painter Jean Lecomte de Noüy (1842-1923). Jacques was married to Madeleine Rodrigues-Henriques, whose mother, Gabrielle Bernheim, was the sister of Josse and Gaston Bernheim, the directors of Galerie Bernheim-Jeune and Bonnard's dealers. Gabrielle Bernheim's second husband was the painter Felix Vallotton, whose brother Paul worked for Bernheim-Jeune before setting up his own gallery. Little Isabel was therefore the grand-daughter of a painter on her father's side, the step-grand-daughter of another painter on his mother's side, as well as being a descendant of the family that owned one of the most distinguished art galleries in Paris. Bonnard, with his long and close connections to the Bernheim family, was the perfect choice for Isabelle's portraitist.
Bonnard actually painted two portraits of Isabelle: the present painting in 1929, and La petite fille au chien, 1929-1932 (Dauberville, no. 1415). Both were executed at Bonnard's home in Le Cannet, and show Isabelle with Bonnard's dachshund "Pouce," seated on a green lawn bench. There is a related preliminary pencil study on canvas, the same size as the two paintings, which suggests that Bonnard was considering a third version as well (fig. 1). The Lecomte de Noüys took possession of the present picture following its completion, and because it has been in the safe-keeping of the family ever since, it has been exhibited only several times. The second portrait was kept by the artist and reworked over three years. It remained in his possession during his lifetime and was subsequently sold out of his estate. It was widely exhibited and illustrated in the 1960s and 1970s, and for this reason it is the better known of the two versions. In this second version Isabelle is seen smiling, with head raised and eyes closed in glee, a depiction which comes across more as a universalized vision of childhood than a specific portrait. The present portrait is the closer likeness of Isabelle, the one her family would have chosen to live with, and indeed the painting has long remained a cherished possession of the Lecomte de Noüy family, who have now chosen to offer it in this sale.
(fig.1) Pierre Bonnard, Etude pour 'Mlle Isabelle Lecomte du Nouÿ', 1929