A pageant of high-keyed color and luxuriant, Mediterranean vegetation, this idyllic scene—one of Bonnard’s earliest tours de force on the theme of the terrace—depicts the grounds of the Villa Antoinette at Grasse, some twelve miles north of Cannes, where the artist and his future wife Marthe stayed on holiday from January to May 1912. The composition is structured around an elegant stone balustrade, which divides the large canvas—more than four feet per side—into two distinct zones. The foreground is given over to the cloistered, domestic realm of the terrace, with its lively array of potted plants and a trio of resident cats; Marthe sits at the very periphery of the scene, her back to the viewer, while one of the couple’s pet dachshunds basks in the sun. Beyond the balustrade is the garden of the Villa Antoinette, where the flora—a meridional paradise of palms and laden orange trees—was left to grow wild and unpruned, just as Bonnard preferred; at the right, the dense mass of trees parts to reveal a glimpse of the violet-tinged Esterel mountains in the distance.
La Terrasse constitutes a paean to the hot, heightened palette and dazzling luminosity of the Côte d’Azur. Orange, pink, and gold are set off against complementary tones of green and blue; a ray of silvery light enters the scene from the right and falls diagonally across the terrace, catching at the edges of the foliage and casting an otherworldly, white glow over the hieratic cat on a stool in the center. Bonnard had made his first extended trip to this sun-drenched region three years earlier, spending the summer of 1909 at Saint-Tropez, the home of Paul Signac and a Mecca for aspiring colorists. Like Van Gogh when he arrived at Arles in 1888, Bonnard experienced the South of France with all the force of a revelation. “It was like something out of the Arabian Nights,” he declared. “The sea, the yellow walls, the reflections as full of color as the light” (quoted in Bonnard: Painting Arcadia, exh. cat., Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 2015, p. 315).
In August 1912, just months after their stay at Grasse, Bonnard and Marthe purchased a small house called Ma Roulotte (“My Caravan”) at Vernonnet, a village on the banks of the Seine near Giverny. For the next 25 years, until late in his life, the artist lived a profoundly peripatetic existence, peregrinating between the Seine valley—the birthplace of Impressionism—and various sites in the Midi, including Saint-Tropez, Antibes, Cannes, and eventually Le Cannet. “For a realist from the north like Bonnard, southern light was a prerequisite for his emerging art of color,” Nicholas Watkins has explained. “Yet he needed, as he said, the lush pastures and passing clouds of the north as a fitting complement to the heat and timelessness of the south, in the same way that an intense red engenders a green after-image” (Bonnard, London, 1994, pp. 124 and 127).
La Terrasse is one of the two largest canvases that Bonnard painted during his exceptionally productive stay at Grasse, both major decorative statements visualizing the Côte d’Azur as a modern-day Arcadia. The other is a panoramic composition entitled L’Été, which depicts the view from the upper-story balcony of the Villa Antoinette over the surrounding landscape; the terrace of the house is visible at the far right, receding into depth (Dauberville, no. 720; Pushkin Museum, Moscow). Bonnard may well have hoped that the mural-sized Été would appeal to the eminent Russian collector Ivan Morozov, who had commissioned the imposing triptych Méditerrannée from the artist two years earlier, and he was not disappointed. When the paintings from Grasse were exhibited at Bernheim-Jeune in June 1912, Morozov immediately laid claim to L’Été; Bonnard subsequently completed a pair of panels for the collector on the themes of spring and autumn (nos. 716 and 718; Pushkin Museum, Moscow).
In L’Été, Bonnard developed the pastoral associations of the Côte d’Azur, imagining Marthe as the central protagonist in a lively, social vignette of goatherds and dancing girls. In La Terrasse, by contrast, he created a private, enclosed world that evokes the sultry heat and languorous reverie of a Mediterranean afternoon. Marthe is now subordinate to the colorful profusion of vegetation, her motionless figure registering to the viewer within the warp and weft of the composition only after a slight, almost imperceptible delay; her sun-dappled blue jacket and brown cloche hat seem to merge, wraith-like, with the surrounding ground of the terrace. “This dreaming feminine presence, Marthe,” Sasha Newman has written, “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 in much of Bonnard’s art” (Bonnard: The Late Paintings, exh. cat., Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., 1984, p. 146).
Bonnard continued to explore the pictorial possibilities of the terrace intermittently throughout his career, most notably in a series of large, decorative canvases from the late teens and twenties that depict the grounds of Ma Roulotte. As in the present canvas, these compositions are structured around the layered planes of terrace, garden, and surrounding countryside, generating a play among various scales and distances. The terrace functions as a liminal space, midway between the intimacy of the interior and the expansiveness of landscape, comparable to the balcony in contemporaneous paintings by Matisse such as Femme au balcon à l’ombrelle verte, 1918-1919. At the same time, Bonnard’s virtuoso handling of color creates a unitary, tapestry-like surface that mitigates depth and asserts the modernist primacy of the picture plane. “The principal subject is the surface,” Bonnard maintained, “which has its color, 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 N. Watkins, op. cit., 1994, p. 171).