In 1927, Bonnard and his wife Marthe acquired a modest villa known as Le Bosquet (“The Grove”), perched high above the bay of Cannes near the village of Le Cannet. Ever since 1909, the artist had spent winters on the Côte d’Azur—so alluringly different from his native Île-de-France. The latter was the birthplace of Impressionism, a land of green fields, cloud-filled skies, and constantly changing weather and light; the Côte d’Azur, in contrast, was the enduring classical paradise of Signac, Matisse, and the aging Renoir, with a heightened palette and pervasive golden radiance. The purchase of Le Bosquet marked the first time that Bonnard had enjoyed a permanent base in the south, and he immediately set to work renovating the house, adding a dedicated studio space and installing large French windows to let in the brilliant sun. “For a realist from the north like Bonnard,” Nicholas Watkins has written, “southern light was a prerequisite for his emerging art of color” (Bonnard, London, 1994, p. 124).
Le Bosquet remained the artist’s home—and his most profound and enduring source of creative inspiration—for the last two decades of his life. In the spacious dining room on the ground floor, the intimate sitting area upstairs, or the glittering jewel-chamber of a bathroom where Marthe lingered in the tub, Bonnard made notes in his journal of color patterns or fleeting observations that sparked his impulse to begin a picture. He then painted from memory back in the studio, transforming his initial visual experiences into variegated tapestries of brilliant color. “The principal subject is the surface,” he maintained, “which has its laws over and above those of objects. It’s not a matter of painting life, it’s a matter of giving life to painting” (quoted in ibid., p. 171).
Bonnard created Le porte-fenêtre avec chien within months of settling at Le Bosquet and sent the canvas to Paris for a solo exhibition at Bernheim-Jeune in October 1927. The painting depicts the small sitting room on the second floor where he and Marthe took their breakfast and lunch each day. A round table covered with a red-and-white checked cloth is set with a tea tray, but Marthe has not yet appeared to join Bonnard for the simple meal. One of the couple’s pet dachshunds—either Ubu, named for the obnoxious anti-hero of Alfred Jarry’s play, or Poucette (“Thumbelina”), the affectionate moniker that they gave to six successive dogs—is visible in a mirror that hangs to the right of the open French door, keeping company with the artist as he observes the sunny interior. “I have all my subjects at hand,” Bonnard explained. “I go visit them. I take notes. And before I start to paint, I meditate, daydream” (quoted in Pierre Bonnard: The Late Still Lifes and Interiors, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2009, p. 61).
The dog’s reflection seems to gaze fixedly out the French door over the red rooftops of Le Cannet, directing the viewer’s attention toward the landscape vista and embodying the act of looking that underpins the entire composition. The central theme of the image—a favorite of Bonnard during these years, as it was for his close friend Matisse—is the open portal, which plays on the Renaissance notion of painting as a view through a window. “A window proved an infinitely flexible device,” Watkins has explained. “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., 1994, pp. 171-172).
Throughout Bonnard’s work from Le Cannet, the window provides a spatial link between two different realms of experience: the intimacy of the interior and the expansiveness of landscape. Here, rather than direct, uninterrupted communication between these two contrasting domains, the view through the open portal is mediated by the French doors and the balcony, creating a complex layering of planes. Matisse explored this same device in paintings from Nice such as Jeune fille à la mauresque (1921), in which the window panes and shutters act as a movable boundary between near and far. In the present painting, moreover, the vividly colored landscape vista does not recede freely into the distance but instead tips upward toward the picture plane, compressing exterior and interior. The railing of the balcony and the fanning tree limbs just beyond that close off physical access to the larger world outside, reinforcing the view through the open door as a wholly aesthetic one, an object of the painter’s contemplation.
Bonnard has used the intersecting horizontals and verticals of the doors and balcony, in all their various parts, to create a rectilinear modernist grid that defines the abstract underpinnings of the composition. The transparent panes of the left-hand door offer a fragmented glimpse over the landscape, which functions as an oblique extension of the more conventionally framed central vista. The right-hand door, in contrast, opens onto the solid, Naples-yellow wall of the sitting room, subverting the view into depth and asserting the essential flatness of the picture. Rather than working on a canvas of predetermined size, Bonnard painted on a length of material tacked to the wall of his studio, altering the dimensions of the composition until he found just the right cropping and then creating a custom stretcher. Here, the tall, narrow format of the canvas repeats the pronounced vertical proportions of the porte-fenêtre and its landscape view, underscoring the conceptual parallel between window and painting.
By the time that he moved to Le Cannet, Bonnard’s treatment of space, like that of Matisse, had become increasingly experimental. “Both artists shared an ambition,” Watkins has noted, “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” (ibid., p. 196). In the present painting, the mirror that hangs to the right of the door becomes a passage into another spatial realm, reflecting a chair with its canine occupant that is ostensibly in the viewer’s space. At the same time, the dog has a stronger material presence in the scene than the still-life objects on the table in the foreground, which seem to dissolve into their surroundings. Bonnard thus inverts the conventional hierarchy of perceptual experience, imbuing the image in the mirror with a greater painted “reality” than the palpable space of the sitting room.
“The nature of reality and the nature of perception are being simultaneously questioned and examined,” Sasha Newman has written. “Slowly, one becomes aware of the multiplication of realities, all equal, all different, represented by the different types of windows—the canvas itself, the mirror, and the actual window to the outside” (Bonnard: The Late Paintings, exh. cat., The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., 1984, p. 120).
The partial view glimpsed in the mirror also evokes the arbitrary and evanescent quality of momentary experience—“what one sees when one enters a room all of a sudden,” as Bonnard noted in his diary (quoted in Bonnard, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1998, p. 37). The unexpected cropping of the tea table, as in a candid photograph, heightens this effect. The dachshund turns his head to the left, toward a doorway (not visible here) that leads into the sitting room, and we might wonder whether he has heard Marthe’s footfall or otherwise sensed her imminent approach. The painting’s complex spatial dialogue—between near and far, flatness and depth, illusion and reality—thus finds a temporal parallel. The scene resonates with a sense of anticipation, the meal on the table as yet untouched; yet the moment had already flowered and passed when Bonnard painted from memory back in his studio.
“Bonnard’s paintings can rarely be taken in quickly; they force us to navigate painstakingly through their intricate spatial construction, their dense layerings of sometimes opaque, sometimes translucent marks, and through the complexity of their implied temporal constructs,” Jack Flam has written. “His paintings have a dense, numinous quality that makes them seem to be evocations not only of the things we see, but also of the memories and specters of other presences, which we intuit but that are not clearly visible. In Bonnard’s paintings, real time and memory are intermingled in such a way as to be nearly indistinguishable” (exh. cat., op. cit., 2009, pp. 51-52).