The present painting depicts the small sitting room on the upper floor of Le Bosquet, Bonnard's home for the last two decades of his life (figs. 1-2). Set on a hillside overlooking the village of Le Cannet, the modest house was surrounded by a lush, secluded garden and boasted panoramic views of the Estérel mountains and the bay of Cannes, visible through the window in the present scene (fig. 3). Between 1926 and 1947, Le Bosquet and its surroundings served as a continual source of creative inspiration for Bonnard, his life and art completely intertwined. He explained to Matisse in 1941, "As for moving into a palatial hotel for a little material comfort, I would lose the basis of my existence, the constant contact with nature, my way of working" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., Hayward Gallery, 1994, p. 40). One of Bonnard's favorite motifs at Le Bosquet was the small sitting room where he and his wife Marthe took their breakfast and lunch; the only area of the house that he painted more frequently was the dining room on the ground floor. The sitting room is the subject of at least twenty-one oil paintings: five wide-angle views of the small space, including the present example (Dauberville, nos. 1455, 1497, 1499, and 1512; figs. 4-5); four canvases depicting narrower portions of the sunny, yellow-walled interior (Dauberville, nos. 1379, 1385, 1474, and 1557); and twelve floral still-lifes that use the room's distinctive marble mantle as their support (for a complete list, see M. Terrasse, op. cit., p. 125). The present painting was included in the Carnegie International Exhibition in Pittsburgh in 1936, where it was awarded second prize; an article in Time magazine announcing the winners described it as a "gaily colored still-life of a breakfast table" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 2009, p. 146). The scene has the diffuse, even luminosity of electric light, however, and the landscape outside the window is jewel-toned and crepuscular, suggesting that this is not Marthe's breakfast but her evening tea.
By the time that he painted the present canvas, Bonnard's treatment of space (like that of Matisse, his close friend and frequent correspondent) had become increasingly experimental. Nicholas Watkins has written, "Both artists shared an ambition in the 1930s to break open the walls of the domestic interior, distort form, and construct through color, in association with light, an expanded reading of pictorial space" (Bonnard, London, 1994, p. 196). The spatial field in the present painting is much wider than what the human eye could take in at a single glance; Bonnard has flattened two walls of the sitting room across the surface of the canvas, as though he were looking through a wide-angle lens. Anchoring the composition is a pair of French doors, flanked on the right by a mirror and on the left by a radiator and (on the adjacent wall) a door leading into the bathroom. At the right, cropped by the edge of the canvas, Marthe leans forward to sip from a cup of tea. Another figure, possibly Bonnard himself, is reflected in the mirror behind her, silent witness to the quiet activity in the room; the head of the painter is more readily recognizable in two other views of the sitting room (Dauberville, nos. 1455 and 1499; fig. 5), "gazing back at Marthe in the mirror, as if linking himself to her--in art as in life--as her painter and protector" (exh. cat., op. cit., 2009, p. 132). Marthe's head, the table, and the tea set are disproportionately large compared with the window and the radiator, as though the space of the room were rapidly receding into depth. At the same time, the broad, rectilinear planes of white and gold that comprise the room's architecture have a flattening effect, which serves to compress the space and underscore the oddities of scale (absent in a more naturalistic watercolor rendering of a very similar scene: fig. 6). These ambiguities of planar form, which are typical of Bonnard's late work, contrast with the more conventional description of space offered by the view of the bay and the mountains, framed in the French doors like a classical landscape painting.
Bonnard explored the theme of the view through a glass door or window repeatedly after his purchase of a small house ("Ma Roulotte") at Vernonnet in 1912. The door or window provides a spatial link between two different realms of experience: the intimacy of the interior and the expansiveness of landscape. Moreover, as Watkins has noted, "A window proved an infinitely flexible device. Like a painting, it acts both as an opening and a barrier, a three-dimensional view and an object in its own right. By distancing life from function, allowing the world to be viewed aesthetically, the window itself became a sign of the contemplative process of painting, and its ramifications went back to the very roots of Bonnard's ambitions as an artist; for it enabled him to reconcile the perceptual experience of nature with the decorative surface" (op. cit., pp. 171-172). In the early 1930s, Bonnard moved on to the ambitious problem of balancing the window view with another theme that had preoccupied him for several years, that of the laden table. He explored this juxtaposition not only at Le Bosquet, but also in various rented accommodations, including a villa at Arcachon where he and Marthe lodged from November 1930 until April 1931 (Dauberville, nos. 1472-1473; fig. 7) and another at Bénerville-sur-Mer where they spent the summer of 1934 (Dauberville, nos. 1524-1525; fig. 8). Unlike Bonnard's interiors from Vernonnet, which typically feature a door or window open to the garden beyond, the Arcachon and Bénerville paintings--like the present canvas--show the French doors shut tight, a glass barrier closing off the world outside. Watkins has concluded, "Although each began in the experience of a particular place, Bonnard pursued a set of pictorial issues from painting to painting: there is a definite feeling of development towards the abstract and poetic. Marthe remains in all... as a moody presence merging with the background" (ibid., p. 176).
A noteworthy feature of many of Bonnard's interiors, including the dining and sitting room scenes, is the way that Marthe is pushed insistently to the periphery. In the present painting, she is cropped by the right edge of the canvas and painted in the same flickering strokes of white, yellow, and orange that Bonnard uses to describe the room's architecture, recalling his dictum that "a figure should be part of the background against which it is placed" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1998, p. 198). Bonnard was fascinated by the nature of perception and strove "to show what one sees when one enters a room all of a sudden," as he wrote in his diary (quoted in ibid., p. 37). In the present painting, it is as though Marthe appears to us only in our peripheral vision, after we have scanned the remainder of the visual field. Her transparent, almost ghostly profile, reminiscent of Redon's wraith-like figures, registers to the viewer as a human form only after a slight delay, almost as an afterthought. The oversized, richly colored tea pot in the center of the canvas is a much more assertive protagonist. Even the figure in the mirror-- diminutive, androgynous, and ambiguously positioned in space--stands out more clearly in the warp and weft of the scene.
The unexpected cropping of the figure of Marthe may reflect both Bonnard's experience as an amateur photographer (some sixty of his photographs are known, mainly candid shots of his daily life) and his lifelong interest in East Asian art, where fragmented and decentralized forms are prevalent. The artist first encountered Japanese graphic arts at the dealer Siegfried Bing's sweeping survey of the medium at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1890. The exhibition made an enormous impression on him, and he 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 Pierre Bonnard: Early and Late, exh. cat., Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., 2002, p. 190). In photographs of Bonnard's studio from his later years, Japanese prints are still prominently displayed, indicating that he not only collected them but also lived and worked with them. Whatever the source, the cropped figure of Marthe makes a powerful emotional impact. Sasha Newman has written, "This dreaming feminine presence, Marthe, who so often appears in cut-off views--glimpsed on a balcony, through a door, or reflected in a mirror--is central to the underlying air of mystery, of hidden sadness in much of Bonnard's art" (Bonnard: The Late Paintings, exh. cat., Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., 1984, p. 146).
(fig. 1) Pierre Bonnard in the sitting room at Le Bosquet. Photo: Henri Cartier-Bresson.
(fig. 2) The sitting room at Le Bosquet.
(fig. 3) Pierre Bonnard, La Baie de Cannes, circa 1923. Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
(fig. 4) Pierre Bonnard, Intérieur blanc, 1932. Musée du Grenoble.
(fig. 5) Pierre Bonnard, Le petit déjeuner, radiateur, circa 1930. Private Collection.
(fig. 6) Pierre Bonnard, La tasse de thé au radiateur, 1932. Musée Pierre Bonnard, Le Cannet.
(fig. 7) Pierre Bonnard, La salle à manger sur le jardin, 1930-1931. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
(fig. 8) Pierre Bonnard, Salle à manger à la campagne, 1934-1935. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.