Pierre Bonnard

The Late Still Lifes and Interiors

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

January 27 - April 19, 2009

"The White Interior"

Cat. 36, "The White Interior," oil on canvas, 43 1/8 by 61 3/8 inches, 1932, Musée de Grenoble

All works by Pierre Bonnard © 2008 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

By Carter B. Horsley

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) is one of those figurative artists whose oeuvre is consistently narrow in subject matter but almost always surprising in its powerful palettes and unusual compositions.

His style borders on the clumsy and the casual, but not the "cool": if anything, Bonnard's work is incandescent, radiant and hot. He is also very, very painterly.

In my review of the 1998 Bonnard exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, I observed that he "was not a revolutionary artist but he synthesized several different styles to create works of striking painterliness and memorably glorious color."

"He borrowed a lightness from the Impressionists, a bold palette from the Post-Impressionists and Fauves, a compressed dimensionality from Matisse and added an immense intensity of his own. His oeuvre combines the poignancy of Degas with the lyricism and luminosity of Rothko."

"Bonnard is very lush, reflecting his roots with the Nabis, a group of artists who called themselves the Hebrew word for "prophets" and followed the teachings of Gauguin to strip art to the essentials of color, surface and form, a movement in which decorative texture was as important as subject matter, indeed, more so."

Bonnard is best known for nudes of his wife standing in a bright yellow room or bathing in her tub and for garden party-like scenes of lush overgrowth and almost unbearable brightness and for some stark close-up self-portraits.

This exhibition, however, has a lot of startling works that are not easy to categorize but definitely sensational.

"The White Interior," for example, is a large oil on canvas that shows one side of a large dining room. It measures 43 1/8 by 61 3/8 inches, and was painted in 1932 and is now in the collection of the Musée de Grenoble. It is a richly, stark, show-off work that eschews prettines in favor of complex geometry and an intensity of light, especially white light.

In a catalogue essay entitled "Intelligent Seeing," Rika Burham provides the following commentary about "The White Interior":

"You can look for a long time at White Interior...before realizing that someone is there. The room's rich tableau - the radiator to the right of the half-opened door, the fireplace to the left, the study chair pulled up to the table - is by now familiar to us. The luminous door and radiator, side by side, recall the porcelain, pearly substance of Bonnard's bath paintings. Above the radiator are splashes of unaccountable sunlight. The screen door opens onto the porch, revealing deep tropical skies and the beginnings of blue night air curling up into the oranges and greens. Only after scanning of all of this does the eye hesitate and discover the almost imperceptible are at the end of the table: a person, wearing a red striped robe, with a spash of yellow hair and a wisp of a face. Her dress is made of the same material as the carpet, with the same patterns. Instead of overlapping the table, she blends into the floor, and thus is perfectly camouflaged. Appparently unaware of anyone watching her, she seems to have just bent over before we, as viewers, happened upon the scene. Then we notice a small cat, with two tiny eyes, looking up at us. Did the cat just slide in, as cats do? Perhaps the woman was feeding it, and we are seeing her as she begins to rise back up. Her robe, no longer a camouflage, becomes one with the hot colors of the sky, and the figure within almost disapppears. Our eye then returns to the door, to the smoldering paradise without for it is in such exteriors that Bonnard depicts the emtional temperatures of his domestic interiors."

In her essay, "The Presence of Objects" Still Life in Bonnard's Late Paintings," Dita Amory, associate curator of the Robert Lehman Collection at the museum and organizer of the exhibition, wrote that "writers in contemporary French publications dismissed him as a latter-day Impressionist out of touch with modern trends....If Bonard's trajectory was far removed from the avant-garde circles of Fauvism, Cubism, and Surrealism, his color was nonetheless more radical at times than that of the Fauves, his imagery more complex and mysterious than that of either Cubism or Surrealism. More important, his process of looking always remained highly original."

In her catalogue entry for the painting, Ms.Amory provides the following perceptive commentary:

"Set in the upstairs sitting room of Le Bosquet, White Interior exploits 'all possible liberties of line, form, proportions [and] colors,' as Bonnard wrote in his daybook (January 14, 1934), in order to 'make feeling intelligible and clearly visible.' The paiting ignores conventions of space, proportion, and color, confounding out expectations. The spatial field, for example, is much wider than what the human eye could naturally see. The exterior views of the Mediterranean, Cannes, and the Esterel Mountains in the distance at first offer a more conventional description of time and place, but the framelike horizontals and verticals of the door mullions suggest instead a strange triptych - or diptychlike configuration of landscapes. The rectilinearity of the tabletop, the half-open door at center, and the angled drop of the fireplace interior contribute to the complexity of the composition. The true subject of the painting is color, particularly white and its nuanced variations in the presence of yellow, blue, ocher, and red...."

"Interior: Dining Room"

Cat. 71, "Interior: Dining Room," oil on canvas, 33 1/8 by 39 3/8 inches, 1942-6. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

In his foreward to the catalogue, Thomas P. Campbell who just replaced Philippe de Montebello as the museum's director observed that Bonnard's "late paintings, far from simple interiors imparting some prosaic narrative, are often disquieting in their use of color as a metaphor for a spectrum of sensations." "Taken together," he continued, these paintings reaffirm the artist's constant search for compelling imagery and his deep engagement with the mysteries of optical phenomena."

A less abstract but more intense work is "Interior: Dining Room," a large oil given to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond by Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon. Ms. Amory notes that Bonnard experiments with peripheral vision with "indeterminate presences, the stealthily arriving figures, the fugitive outlines so transparent the colors behind bleed through and partially conceal them. In both The Breakfast Room and Interior: Dining Room..., we see figures only slowly, almost reluctantly. They are unrevolved, out of focus, and nearly genderless. ....In Interior: Dining Room, the woman is more peripheral than spectral, almost a side show to the pagenatry of the table. The edges of Bonnard's paintings are entrances for mystery and menace alike."

The composition is strongly balanced and the rhythmic and intense verticality of the stripes in the top half of the painting is an insistent drum beat dramatically calling our attention to this otherwise conventional scene.

"Table in Front of the Window"

Cat. 37, "Table in Front of the Window," oil on canvas, 40 by 28 1/2 inches, 1934-5, private collection

The verticality of "Interior: Dining Room," appears again in "Table in Front of the Window" but now it decorates not the walls but the tablecloth and dominates the lower rather than the top half of the painting.

Detail of "Table in Front of the Window"

Cat. 37, detail of "Table in Front of the Window," oil on canvas, 40 by 28 1/2 inches, 1934-5, private collection

"Table..." is a much bolder composition that is also quite subtle. Rectilinearity is replaced with some curves and once again a "spectral" figure is present, barely, at the right. Rika Burham states that the figure is "barely a thin outline in white," adding that "The volatile orange color of her skin is the same as that on the wall seemingly behind her."

"She enters in a rectangle of sunlight," Burham continued, "her disjointed hand holding a skeletal spoon or perhaps reaching for an equally sketchy carafe. No features define her further, but she like many of the other figures we've seen, comes with her own source of radiance. It spills onto the table and its edge, onto the curtains and the tiny leaves hanging above the window like a halo. This is the most ephemeral of figures, a face etched in white light, a fragment of a torso dissolved into dabs of paint, arn arm sketched and resketched, appearing to reach into the room and retract at the same time."

These ephemeral, peripheral figures are really prizes for the patient viewer, visual candy of discovery, and are quite "secondary" to the overall compositions that are very, very powerful and unusual.

"Still Life with Bouquet of Flowers"

Cat. 7, "Still Life with Bouquet of Flowers (La Venus de Cyrene)," oil on canvas, 23 5/8 by 51 3/8 inches, 1930, Kunstmuseum, Basel

In her discussion in the catalogue of "Still Life with Bouquet of Flowers (La Venus de Cyrene)," Nicole R. Myers provides the following commentary:

"The unusual format of this long, rectangular canvas recalls the decorative panels painted by Bonnard and the Nabis in the 1890s."...[It] was created in honor of his friend and dealer, Josse Bernheim-Jeune. Similar to how Van Gogh sometimes used images of contemporary literature to add to or enhance the meanings of his works, here Bonnard painted a portrait of the dealer by representing his publications. The bright yellow cover of Bernheim-Jenune's 1930 novel, La venus de Cyrene, stands out prominently among the still-life elements on the table, while a corner of his periodical, Le Bulletin artistique de la vie, hovers at the edge of the composition like one of Bonnard's spectral figures....Bonnard modestly downplayed his own involvement in the project, however, as the illustration he created for the novel's cover is conspicuously absent from the representation of the book in the painting."

"In the Bathroom"

Cat. 69, "In the Bathroom," oil on canvas, 36 1/4 by 24 3/8 inches, circa 1940, Collection of Stephen Mazoh

"In the Bathroom," an oil on canvas that measures 36 1/4 by 24 3/8 inches and was executed circa 1940, is a work whose pale palette and composition are very similar to famous works by Richard Diebenkorn. It is a mysterious work even though it does not appear to contain any "spectral" figures.The deep blue stripe surrounding the interior, the unusual dark colors of the ceiling, and the rising pale blue "fog" of a seanced tablecloth and the cloudless bright blue sky out yonder all contribute to a melange of intriguing, but not threatening elements. Could this be Hercule Poirot's kitchen?

"Young Women in the Garden"

Cat. 72, "Young Women in the Garden (Renée Monchaty and Marthe Bonnard)," oil on canvas, 23 7/8 by 30 3/8 inches, 1921-2/1945-6, private collection

"Young Women in the Garden (Renée Monchaty and Marthe Bonnard)" is a work whose poignancy is not visually apparent. Bonnard started the painted in 1921 and returned to it in 1945. It depicts the two important women in his life as well as being highlighted by his always strong patterning and his luminous colors.

In her catalogue essay "Still Life in Bonnard's Late Paintings," Ms. Amory discusses this work:

"The very color of light for Bonnard was yellow, one that describes light, gives off light, is light. Significantly, yellow was also the color that Bonnard associated with his former mistress, Renée Monchaty, a flaxen-haired young woman who was also his model. (When Marthe learned that Bonnard had proposed marriage to Renée, she protested and prevailed, causing the devastated Renée to commit suicide.) This tangled association is vividly illustrated by Young Women in the Garden (Renée Monchaty and Marthe Bonnard)..., a painting Bonnard began in 1922-23, soon after Renée's, death, and reworked in 1945-46, after Marthe died. Renée, radiantly golden in a white shirt turned violet, stares at the viewer - unusual for Bonnard - while looking inward as well. To her left is an ominous, dark vertical shape set against the light, perhaps a foreboding of the dark exit to her short-lived beauty. Behind her, a golden orange, red, and magenta plate (basket?) of fruit is touched by a smaller plate of three fruits, analogous to the overlapping lives of Bonnard, Marthe, and Renée. Foregrounding this gilded vision is the dark barrier of the chair back, its arc held toeether by clawlike spindles that separate Renée from the darker, cropped Marthe, whose presence here is a formal, as well as a psychological, intrusion. In the lower-left corner a pet dog looks on at both women, almost as if choosing between them. In this painting, one of Bonnard's last, yellow is clearly the color of the sun, of optimism, of life. ...'One cannot have too much yellow,' Bonnard said. For him, yellow was not just a color."

The artist kept this unfinished painting in his studio and when he returned to it in 1945, according to Ms. Amory, "he gilded the background in saffron yellow, as if to give the memory of Renée a transcendent radiance," adding that "Marthe may have prevailed in life, but her presence here in paint is decidedly marginal, even voyeuristic."

"Lunch or Breakfast"

Cat. 23, "Lunch or Breakfast," oil on canvas, 26 3/4 by 29 1/8 inches, circa 1932, Musée d'Art Modernede la Ville de Paris

In her catalogue essay, "The Cat Drank All the Milk: Bonnard's Continous Present," Jacqueline Munce discusses "Lunch or Breakfast," a lovely and haunting painting Bonnard executed circa 1932:

"Marthe...appears almost childlike - untamed, not yet socialized - just as she does in early photographs. Bonnard captures every trace of this animal quality in Marthe by relying on her natural, or instinctual, reception of sensations, her conscience in its precognitive state: her passive wait for the tea to grow cold; her attention diverted by the dog begging for its morning caress and treats; the scent of flowers on the table; the smell of brioche blending with that of fruit; the chirping of birds that distracts her eye from the task at hand; the muffled sounds of conversation rising through the house which she does not every try to comprehend; the slow breeze through the flowers that make their corollas sway, and whose changing colors attract the eye much in the way that light reflecting off bathroom tiles dissipates in the water at a stroke of the fingertips. Ever the 'wonderstruck observer,' in Muarice Denis's words, Bonnard favored such moments of somnolence or modest distractions, the passivity of anaesthetized consciousness upon waking or duringeandering walks. But he also painted moments of abrasion or astringency that stimulate the skin - a warm touch, the shock of textures familiar to the body - with precise, concentrated gestrues that lead us back to a more consious presence in the outer world. This state of latency and nonchalance, the 'potpourri of indecision' that Picasso so despised in Bonnard's works, eliminate the need for decisivenssness; it allowed Bonnard to not decide, or, as Bois, has suggested, it gave him the choice to not choose."

"The Yellow Shawl" "Corner of the Dining Room at Le Cannet"

Cat. 22, "The Yellow Shawl," oil on canvas, 50 1/4 by 37 3/4 inches, circa 1925, Yale University Art Gallery, Gift from the Estate of Paul Mellon, left; Cat. 35, "Corner of the Dining Room at Le Cannet," oil on canvas, 31 7/8 by 35 5/8 inches, 1932. Centre Pompidou, Paris, Musée national d'art modrne/Centre de création industrielle. State Purchase, 1933. right

A woman wearing a yellow shawl appears in two large paintings in the exhibition, "The Yellow Shawl" in the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery, and "Corner of the Dining Room at Le Cannet" in the collection of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The former was painted circa 1925 and the latter in 1932. The former is a more defined and detailed composition that finely demonstrates the artist's fascination with patterns and exaggerated perspective. The latter is slightly more abstract - almost showing the influence of Fernand Léger - with a somewhat confusing sense of volume and depth. The earlier painting is an amalgam of Matisse and Van Gogh influences while the later one almost suggests a Rothkoesque painterliness where blur transcends content.

"Woman with Mimosa"

Cat. 8, "Woman with Mimosa," oil on canvas, 19 1/8 by 24 5/8 inches, 1924, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Bequest of Ann Eden Woodward, 1975

"Woman with Mimosa" is a very attractive 1924 painting of a pensive woman sitting beside a tray with mimosas in a flower pot. The woman's face is directly behind and above the flowers and the painting resonates with the "indecision" between whether this is a still life or a portrait.

"Still Life on a Red Checkered Tablecloth"

Cat. 54, "Still Life on a Red Checkered Tablecloth," watercolor, gouache and pencil on paper, 12 1/4 by 9 1/2 inches, 1930-5, Mr. and Mrs. Joe R. Long of Austin, Texas

The exhibition has numerous purely still life works by Bonnard and perhaps the best is "Still Life on a Red Checkered Tablecloth," a watercolor, gouache and pencil on paper from 1930-5 that is owned by Mr. and Mrs. Joe R. Long of Austin, Texas. It is very vibrant and a fine composition.

"The Table"

Cat. 15, "The Table," oil on canvas, 40 1/2 by 29 1/4 inches, 1925, Tate. Presented by the Courtauld Fund Trustees, 1926

"The Table" is a 1925 composition in which a white tablecloth dominates the center of the painting and is strewn with more than a dozen objects that are clearly defined and individual and seem not to "compete" for their space. One is tempted to see a version of this painted by Wayne Thiebault whose rich impasto technique would surely make these objects edible. The Bonnard composition, moreover, again offers Marthe lost in paying attention to her dog at the top of the composition as if she just happened to wander into the room and sit down obvious to Bonnard's easel and the many objects on the very large table. The composition's asymmetry is highlighted by two small bright spots, one at the very top edge of the painting and one about halfway down the right edge. These two elementsw serve to distract some attention away from Marthe and make the composition actually more human by emphasing its imperfect symmetry. It is very painterly.

"The Breakfast Table"

Cat. 55, "The Breakfast Table," oil on canvas, 25 1/8 by 37 1/2 inches, 1936, private collection, New York

"The Breakfast Table" combines many of Bonnard's signature elements into one quite luminous composition. An oil on canvas from 1936, it measures 25 1/8 by 37 1/2 inches and is one of many works in the exhibition still in private hands. The catalogue entry notes that "the compressed space, strongly geometric appointments, oddities of scale, and other occasional ambiguities of planar form are...all typical of the artist's late work." The composition bears a similarity to beautiful, small, 1932 watercolor by the artist in the exhibition that is entitled "Cup of Tea by the Radiator," and which is at the Musée Pierre Bonnard Le Cannet, Cote d'Azur, on deposit from a private collection.

"Work Table"

Cat. 20, "Work Table," oil on canvas, 48 by 36 inches, 1926/1937, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

Bonnard painted "Work Table" in 1926-7 but returned to it in 1937 to simplify the design of the rug. The catalogue notes that the painting "was confiscated by the Nazis during the Second World War and eventually found its way into Hermann Goring's collection of appropriated art works," adding that "recovered by the Allies after the war, the painting was restituted to France in March 1946 and was included that year in an exhibition of repatriated French masterpieces. It is now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon.

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