‘Show nature when it’s beautiful. Everything has its moment of beauty. Beauty is the fulfillment of seeing. Seeing is fulfilled by simplicity and order. Simplicity and order are produced by dividing legible surfaces, grouping compatible colours…’ -Pierre Bonnard
'Nothing mundane remains in [Bonnard’s] treatment of this everyday subject. The symbolist and classicising elements, subdued in his early work, emerge here in full force’ -Peter Sutton
Radiant in hue and profoundly enigmatic in composition, this nearly life-size rendering of a statuesque female bather is the definitive canvas in a sequence of images that occupied Bonnard at intervals over a period of some fifteen years. The genesis of the composition may be found in a photograph that Bonnard took around 1910 of Marthe de Méligny, his lifelong partner and prevailing muse, as she crouches to wash in a round, shallow tub. Compositionally indebted to Degas’s bather pastels, the photograph shows Marthe wholly absorbed in her private task, the ungainliness of her momentary pose and the voyeuristic frisson of the scene heightened by the unusually low, close vantage point. Between 1916 and 1918, Bonnard re-visited this composition in oil on at least four occasions (Dauberville, nos. 933, 2105, and 2130-2131); in 1924, he raised the nude in her basin to standing, producing two small oil studies (nos. 1279 and 2166) followed by the present, culminating Femme au tub.
While the earlier oils retain the photograph’s emphasis on capturing an intimate moment with anecdotal immediacy, in the present painting Bonnard boldly abstracted these naturalistic predecessors into a timeless and monumental statement of the female nude. ‘Nothing mundane remains in his treatment of this everyday subject,’ Peter Sutton has written. ‘The symbolist and classicising elements, subdued in his early work, emerge here in full force’ (P. Sutton, Prized Possessions: European Paintings from Private Collections of Friends of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, exh. cat., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1992, p. 126). The standing bather now faces the viewer directly with the enduring presence of ancient sculpture, her powerfully modelled form filling the large canvas from bottom edge to top. The sponge that she holds in her hand in the studies has here been eliminated, leaving her exact activity unclear; her closed grip suggests the trace of the missing object, like a classical statue with a fragment broken away. A frequent visitor to the Greek galleries in the Louvre, Bonnard may well have had in mind the renowned Apoxyomenos of the 4th century BCE—a youthful athlete scraping sweat and dirt from his body with a strigil, weight on the left leg and bent arms outstretched, as here.
The interior setting for Femme au tub closely replicates that of the source photograph, which Bonnard took during a holiday stay with Marthe at Vernouillet, a village in the Seine valley. The French door behind the bather re-appears, along with the empty expanse of floor between them; on the right is the same dressing table, with a floral patterned skirt and a rectangular mirror that augments the space of the room. Here too, however, Bonnard has distanced himself from the naturalistic origins of the imagery, rendering the familiar subtly strange, as in a dream or reverie. ‘The way his paintings slow down our process of viewing, the perspectival and structural contradictions they contain,’ Jack Flam has written, ‘suggest another level of consciousness, a mental world that imposes its own structure upon the objects of everyday life’ (J. Flam, in D. Amory, ed., Pierre Bonnard: The Late Still Lifes and Interiors, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2009, p. 54).
In Femme au tub, the floor of the dressing room tilts steeply upward, causing the space to recede rapidly. The bather’s heels appear barely to touch the bottom of the metal tub beneath them; moreover, like orbs hovering in space, twin ceramic plates mysteriously appear on the floor behind her, their purpose inexplicable apart from guiding the viewer’s gaze along the oblique space leading back and up to the French door. The three-dimensional plasticity of the figure contrasts with the flat, rectilinear planes of colour and pattern that make up the surrounding pictorial field, akin to the decorative textiles in Matisse’s contemporaneous odalisques; a stylised tracery of branches in the window takes the place of a conventional view into depth. The head of the bather is backlit against the strong golden sun that enters the room through the glass, obscuring her features and leaving her face a near-silhouette. Her stately curves, conversely, are illuminated by light from a second, unseen window close to the viewer, producing a disquieting vision of a well-lit body topped by a face sunken in shadow—the former denoting possession, the latter signifying loss.
Heightening the mystery of this extraordinary canvas is the question of the model’s identity—is she Marthe, as in the original photograph, or does she represent another, unexpected female presence in the ambit of this most private artist? Throughout his career, when Bonnard painted a nude, it was almost always Marthe, whom he had met by chance on a Paris street in 1893. Although Bonnard never knew her family nor called her by her real name—Maria Boursin—her body and the physical closeness of their relationship engaged him as no other subject, revealing a deeply touching experience of shared domestic intimacy; he drew seemingly inexhaustible inspiration from her unhurried daily ablutions, which she took to cure a range of ills. ‘We are made to witness a relationship not between artist and model, but between Pierre and Marthe,’ Timothy Hyman has observed. ‘Marthe’s body is affirmed as a vessel of human emotion, holding its full measure of psychological and contemplative significance’ (T. Hyman, Bonnard, London, 1998, p. 164).
In the present Femme au tub, the model has Marthe’s long legs and narrow hips, as well as her distinctive round face and bobbed brown hair. She is decidedly unlike Marthe, however, in other aspects—physically powerful rather than frail and bird-like, with broad shoulders, a strong set to her jaw, and a distinctive bow-shaped mouth. Whereas Marthe usually appears to be caught unaware, her head bowed and her body folded inward, the model here stands tall and frontal, steadily meeting the artist’s gaze. Most likely, this is not Marthe at all, but—as Bonnard’s grand-nephew Antoine Terrasse has recently proposed—a young woman named Lucienne Dupuy de Frenelle, who met the artist around 1916 and became, for a time, his lover (G. Cogeval & I. Cahn, eds., Pierre Bonnard: Painting Arcadia, exh. cat., Musée d’Orsay, Paris, 2015, p. 210). Working alone in his studio—never before the live model—Bonnard could imaginatively transpose one presence for another, mingling real time and memory in a single image; here, the spectre of Marthe still haunts the composition, but Lucienne has taken her place in Bonnard’s conscious perception, her well-proportioned physique fulfilling his new vision of monumentally classical form.
Although Lucienne is mentioned only rarely in accounts of Bonnard’s work, she was part of his life for over a decade, during the spirited post-war years. Aged 23 when they met, she quickly charmed the artist’s whole family when he brought her home to Le Grand-Lemps. Between 1916 and 1918, Bonnard captured her classic beauty in a remarkable series of portraits (Dauberville, nos. 928, 2095, 2122-2127), and she is very likely the formidable, frontal nude in La Cheminée as well (no. 884). Although their physical liaison ended around 1918, perhaps when Bonnard took up with the golden-haired Renée Monchaty, Lucienne remained friends with both the artist and Marthe, traveling with them on holiday and visiting them frequently at Cannes and Le Cannet. ‘Bonnard was completely committed to his work and to all that might enrich it,’ Terrasse has written. ‘He became attached, sometimes passionately, to other women, other faces... Marthe, highly perceptive, immediately understood the import of these other feminine presences for Bonnard’s work’ (A. Terrasse, in ibid., pp. 206 & 209).
Bonnard’s life took a turn in 1925, the year after he painted the present canvas. Perhaps seeking to reassure moody Marthe of his continued devotion, he wed her unexpectedly in Paris that August. Renée, who had held out hope of becoming the artist’s wife, took her own life the next month; Lucienne fell ill soon after and died in May 1927, leaving Bonnard to grieve deeply these successive losses. He and Marthe had just moved into Le Bosquet, a modest villa in the hills above Le Cannet. Bonnard had a modern bath built in the house, with a soaking tub and running water, which increasingly—as Marthe’s temper and health declined—became the inner sanctum of the couple’s shared domestic intimacy. Yet the memory of his two young lovers remained strong: Bonnard kept in his studio until his death, and never showed publicly, his most radiant portrait of Renée, smiling broadly (Dauberville, no. 1103), and the present painting of Lucienne, imbued with solemn mystery.