Absence and the Possibility of Return – Painter Pierre Bonnard (Bonnard, Part One)

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The images and text correlate best when viewed on a wide screen rather than on a phone or on an iPad.


At first glance, a painting by Pierre Bonnard appears to be a straightforward image from everyday life.

Pierre Bonnard; Still Life with a Bowl of Fruit, 1933; oil on canvas; Philadelphia Museum of Art
Pierre Bonnard; Still Life with a Bowl of Fruit, 1933; oil on canvas; Philadelphia Museum of Art

But very little about them is straightforward.

A bowl of fruit casually placed on the dining room table recalls the routines we share with those who are closest to us.

In his hands, however, ordinary objects take on odd shapes. Colors vibrate. Forms move in and out of view. Space opens and then flattens again against the canvas. Familiar possessions transform into metaphors.

“Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” ― Marcel Proust

Pierre Bonnard, 1892

Although images from Bonnard’s paintings came from his daily life, he rarely painted directly from life. Instead, he drew incessantly to capture whatever struck him in a particular moment on whatever paper was available and pocket-sized – small notebooks, diaries, children’s sketchbooks, envelopes, and shopping lists. They record his initial response to an experience.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) in 1892

A friend of Bonnard’s recalled that he “scrawled them with a burnt match, even a broken pen, but he had a predilection for an indescribably blunt pencil that was so short that a landscape or a nude seemed to spring from the ends of his three fingers compressed around an invisible point.”

A few scribbled words surrounding a sketch were reminders about the weather and light on a particular day. Others notes read like aphorisms; “museums are filled with uprooted works”, “untruth is cutting out a piece of nature and copying it”.

Bonnard; Sketch of Bouquet of Flowers, c. 1940; Pencil on paper

His personal shorthand of dashes, tick marks, spirals, dots, circles, crosses, and squiggles indicated color or color combinations: a zig-zag meant red and green; a fast fleck stood for orange and blue; a slow scribble represented yellow and violet.

Other marks conveyed the intensity of light that fell on and through various surfaces.

An erased blurry smudge or the differences in the sharpness or spacing of marks indicated opening space or a form’s contour.

Some marks move the eye quickly through an area and others slow it down to convey his visual experience of a transitory moment.

Bonnard; Sketch 2

He preferred wide-angle views, such as a view around a corner. However, transcribing a broad perspective to a flat page required a new way of thinking about color, light, line, and the illusions of space and depth, not just in the sketch, but in the final painting.

Bonnard; Sketch of Table, Flowers, and Plants; pencil on paper

The process from sketch to completed painting could take months or years. He felt “weak in front of nature”, that is, he needed to experience a deep familiarity with something before he understood how to paint it. “If you paint directly from a subject, your thoughts about the subject change as you paint.”

Working from life meant surrendering to the object. Working from drawings allowed the intrusion of memory and time, a “surrendering to the picture”. Asked if he ever added a last-minute object to a still-life, he replied, “I haven’t lived with that long enough to paint it.”

Brassaï; Pierre Bonnard in His Studio (Bonnard dans son atelier, Le Cannet), 1946
Brassaï; Bonnard in his studio, Le Cannet, 1946

In time, he began transferring the composition to a larger scale on canvas in his home studio. Bonnard tacked roughly cut, loose, unstretched canvases to the wall, side-by-side, at different heights. (A stretched canvas has already been tightly pulled and securely attached on the reverse side to a frame. An unstretched canvas is simply a flat piece of canvas.) Stretchers, he believed, imposed limits on a composition; unstretched canvases allowed him to alter the dimensions of the image as he painted.

“Working within a set of imposed dimensions seems to me intolerable, as the composition is more or less always cropped or modified by material measurements of the support. … In every landscape there is the need for a certain quantity of sky and land, water and greenery, a dosage of elements that one cannot always establish at the start…”

Brassaï; Pierre Bonnard in His Studio at Le Cannet, 1946
Brassaï; Bonnard in His Studio, Le Cannet, 1946

He worked on different paintings at the same time – landscapes, still lifes, interior scenes, nudes – moving from one to the other as he added paint, but never in a deliberate, sequential way nor in response to the changing light.

Occasionally, he painted more than one composition on a single large canvas that extended the full distance of the wall that he later cut into individual pieces.

Bonnard began with a base of very liquid paint diluted with so much turpentine that it covered the canvas like a mist. Instead of using a palette, he mixed his colors on plates and walked back and forth between the canvases and the table on which his plates were placed.

The act of painting was an evolution, a slow buildup of the physical substance of layers of colored pigments on canvas, sometimes applied in a thick layer so he could then scrape into it with the back of his brush. In another area on the same canvas, the layer of paint is so thin that the penciled-in underdrawing is visible. The process of continuous editing and revising was as uneven as his initial glimpse of a moment in time (and has made a strict chronology of his works challenging.)

“What I am after is the first impression … I want to show all one sees on first entering a room. … What the eye takes in at first glance.”

Bonnard; Mixing Paint in Studio

Once he’d mixed a specific color, he applied it onto various canvases, adding bits of it here and there.

“The main subject is the surface, which has color, its laws, over and above objects.”

Although his paintings sold well, Bonnard’s reputation declined in the progression of Modern Art movements that unfolded during and after his lifetime. He didn’t fit into any of them; some critics described him as a want-to-be Impressionist whose time had passed. Painter Camille Pissarro described Bonnard’s first solo exhibition in 1896 as a “complete fiasco”. Several years later, art critic Jean Paulhan coolly dismissed Bonnard as one “who did not raise any questions”.

Picasso was merciless – “That’s not painting, what he does. He never goes beyond his own sensibility. He doesn’t know how to choose. When Bonnard paints a sky, perhaps he first paints it blue, more or less the way it looks. Then he looks a little longer and sees some mauve in it, so he adds a touch or two of mauve, just to hedge. Then he decides that maybe it’s a little pink too, so there’s no reason not to add some pink. The result is a potpourri of indecision. If he looks long enough, he winds up adding a little yellow, instead of making up his mind what color the sky really ought to be. Painting can’t be done that way. Painting isn’t a question of sensibility; it’s a matter of seizing the power, taking over from nature, not expecting it to supply you with information and good advice.”

Bonnard in his studio, 1945; photograph by Bonnet
Bonnard in his studio, 1945; photograph by Bonnet

After his death in 1947, Bonnard was eclipsed by the chutzpah of Abstract Expressionism and other subsequent art movements. In the last twenty years or so, scholars have taken another look. What Picasso saw as a “potpourri of indecision”, Bonnard saw as reverberations of color that hold positive forms and negative spaces together, a nuanced grid that straightens curves and rounds right angles. Painter Patrick Heron likened the effect to the way a spider’s web holds raindrops.

For Picasso, painting was a matter “seizing the power”. For Bonnard, painting was an assembly of memories, collected in glimpses, recorded in drawings, filtered through time and emotions, that were eventually expressed through colors in multiple perspectives of space, with clues hidden in the contours of objects, offered to viewers to create their own experience of the extended process of seeing and remembering.

Henri Cartier-Bresson; Pierre Bonnard, age 77, Le Cannet; 1944

The enjoyment of Bonnard’s complexities of visual perception can take time. Some things are hidden in the periphery or are challenging to identify. Space is manipulated. Patterns camouflage and slow discernment of objects and figures. Color relationships move one’s attention around the canvas. 

Pierre Bonnard; Still Life with a Bowl of Fruit, 1933; oil on canvas; Philadelphia Museum of Art
Pierre Bonnard; Still Life with a Bowl of Fruit, 1933; oil on canvas; Philadelphia Museum of Art

Open up the image on a wide screen. Spend time looking at the colors and lines and shapes of whatever catches your eye first. Focus on that and, at the same time, have an awareness of what’s in your peripheral vision. Imagine reaching over the bowl of fruit for the pitcher; what happens to your sense of space?

Bonnard relies on the fact that, at first, our eyes will jump around a rather limited “scan path” of stimuli at the center of a visual field. He’s set it up so that the first thing you’re likely to notice is the shimmering fruit that sits in a basket.

How quickly your eyes take in other areas of the canvas depends upon how he has used color, line, and other elements of art to call attention to them. For example, you might next notice the tall pitcher behind the bowl of fruit. Spend some time there until you feel the rhythm that its orange vertical outlines create with the other vertical lines on either side. Next, your eyes sense a pattern and the pattern becomes a striped tablecloth.

The far side of the table abuts a bright orange horizontal area (another painting of the same table reveals it’s a closed pair of French windows). What has happening to space beyond and under the table? We can peer into the bowl of fruit, so we must be above it. Yet, the table is tilted so steeply that it’s almost upright; shouldn’t the bowl of fruit slide off of the table?

The many vertical and horizontal lines – the vertical stripes of the tablecloth, the horizontal lines of the window in the background, the vertical lines of the pitcher, the horizontal lines of the trivet upon which the basket rests, the dark vertical grape stem and the dark horizontal/vertical tips of the bananas set against light lines of the tablecloth – stretch across the canvas like a taut wire. They not only direct our attention around the canvas, but they also create width, they form patterned pathways that extend up/down and right/left, they tilt the table so dramatically that we’re reminded that it’s not a table at all – it’s a flat canvas. The interaction of lines holds the construction of the picture together. The subject has become part of the formal structure of the picture.

Bonnard; Still Life with a Bowl of Fruit, 1933; oil on canvas; Philadelphia Museum of Art

What’s the round shape above the pitcher? The pitcher’s raised lid or something else? Does something appear to be reflected in the shape?

For Bonnard, everything is secondary to color. Here, they are searing under the bright overhead light. Bonnard’s colors are vehicles of light. They define form and space. They translate his experience. Color was so important to Bonnard that when he mixed one that he particularly liked, he added a touch of it here and there to other paintings in his studio and throughout his house. Fellow artist Georges Rouault called it “Bonnarding” and described watching Bonnard at work, “Sometimes, having mixed one of his burning hues . . . and applied it to the work in progress, he would wander around the house from canvas to canvas, finding little places where he could insert what he had left over.” There’s a story that Bonnard once convinced his friend, painter Édouard Vuillard, to distract a guard at the Palais de Luxembourg so that he could add dabs of paint to one of his works in the museum’s collection. There are multiple stories about him showing up at collectors’ houses with a small paint box in his pocket. A work was only finished “when I can’t see what more to do with it.”

Bonnard; Still Life with a Bowl of Fruit, 1933; oil on canvas; Philadelphia Museum of Art

Find all of the touches of white.

In some places, white dissolves form and suggests indefinite space.

In other areas, white highlights form and establishes weight. Note how he counterpoints bright yellow with accents of black in the overripe fruit, and how touches of white suggest that light is shining through the grapes so their color fluctuates between green and yellow.

Bonnard; Still Life with a Bowl of Fruit, 1933; oil on canvas; Philadelphia Museum of Art

Color Wheel

Think about color relationships and the layering of color.

“I realized that color could express everything … with no need for relief or texture. I understood that it was possible to translate light, shapes, and character by color alone, without the need for values” (without the need for tones of light and dark, or shading and the modeling of forms).

Bonnard; Still Life with a Bowl of Fruit, 1933; oil on canvas; Philadelphia Museum of Art

For example, at the top left, the yellow/orange grapes (colors next to each other on the color wheel) have indistinct shapes. 

Layer green and yellow and the grapes look translucent. 

Add red next to the green (complementary colors) and the result is so dramatic that you want to pick a grape off the stem and eat it. 

Bonnard (and Matisse) understood that contrasting complementary colors in high intensity seem to generate light. That is, if you stare at a bright blue for a period of time and then look at a white page, (due to retinal fatigue) you’ll see blue’s complementary color, orange, as an after-image. (Try it here: https://www.animations.physics.unsw.edu.au/jw/light/complementary-colours.htm#3)

Example of Moiré Pattern
Example of Moiré Pattern; the yellow background is overprinted in blue-white with white ground and is from here: https://collection.cooperhewitt.org/objects/18679287/

The after-image will moiré (create a wavy pattern) and that can inject the sensation of movement to a painting. Moiré patterns are commonly seen on television screens when a person is wearing a particular weave or pattern. 

This is why, for Bonnard, yellow is the color that describes light, that gives off light, that is light. He uses the properties of yellow and its relationships with other colors so that the viewer would experience dazzling light.

This interest to create art that aspired beyond the merely descriptive, to give form to the immaterial, such as a state of mind, was explored by Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898), a French poet whose works anticipated Cubism, Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, German Expressionism, and Abstraction in the 1900s. Mallarmé’s poems inspired many painters to pursue abstraction. Bonnard profoundly admired Mallarmé; the two were close friends.

“I believe . . . that there must only be allusion. … To name an object is to destroy three-quarters of the enjoyment of the poem, which derives from the pleasure of step-by-step discovery; to suggest, that is the dream. … To evoke an object little by little, so as to bring to light a state of the soul or, inversely, to choose an object, which, when gradually deciphered, reveals a state of mind.” – Mallarmé

Pierre Bonnard, Ida and Cipa Natanson, Misia and Thadée Natanson, and Auguste Renoir at Villeneuve-sur-Yonne; September 11, 1898, the day after Mallarmé’s funeral

From left to right: Pierre Bonnard, Cipa and Ida Natanson, Thadée and Misia Natanson, and Auguste Renoir at Villeneuve-sur-Yonne; September 11, 1898, the day after attending Mallarmé’s funeral

Stéphane Mallarmé; Jamais un coup de dé n'abolira le hasard
Mallarmé wrote detailed, obsessive instructions on the design and printing of his poem Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard (A throw of the dice will never abolish chance; 1897). The poem is arranged over 20 pages and each pair of consecutive facing pages is read as a single panel; the text flows irregularly back and forth across the two pages. Every design element, such as the symbolic interaction between the white space and the labyrinth of words printed in black, cascade with the rhythm of tossed dice.

Bonnard, inspired by Mallarmé, often used open space and empty objects in his paintings in the same way that Mallarmé used a span of empty space on a page to create a relationship between content and form, between the arrangement of words and space on the page. Like Mallarmé’s poems, a number of Bonnard’s paintings explore the delicate point where perception shifts, that in a seemingly straightforward painting of a bowl of fruit sitting on a table, space can unexpectedly change.

Bonnard; Still Life with a Bowl of Fruit, 1933; oil on canvas; Philadelphia Museum of Art

Try to reconcile the shape of the shadow with the shape of the bowl. Something’s amiss because there’s an oval-shaped white-yellow form at the bottom center. A glass sitting at the edge of the table, perhaps? To whom does it belong?

Dive into the blues and oranges that create the cast shadow of the fruit and the bowl. Move your eyes throughout the shadow and then look into the center. The interaction between blue and orange creates a sense of depth, as if we’re seeing the dark blue night sky reflected on the surface of water.

Bonnard; Still Life with a Bowl of Fruit, 1933; oil on canvas; Philadelphia Museum of Art

With Bonnard, voids aren’t empty. They’re filled by his impressions and memories. A glass or a shadow may fill an empty space on a table but as empty or unfilled objects themselves, emphasize the understanding of absence and the possibility of return.

Marthe de Méligny Bonnard

The possibility of your return would be so welcome during this time of physical isolation due to the global pandemic. Part Two takes a closer look at several of Pierre Bonnard’s most innovative paintings, those of the bathing Marthe de Méligny, and how so many critics sunk to a new low.

Part Three dives into her painted presence. 

Stay safe and be well.

Photograph of Marthe de Méligny by Bonnard

Pierre Bonnard; Nude in Bathtub, c. 1940-46; oil on canvas; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh
Pierre Bonnard; Nude in Bathtub, c. 1940-46; oil on canvas; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

– Meighan Maley

Amory, Dita. “Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947): The Late Interiors.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/bonn/hd_bonn.htm (November 2010)
Amory, Dita (ed). Pierre Bonnard: The Late Still Lifes and Interiors. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Yale University Press, New Haven and London. 2009
“Bonnard.” Museum of Modern Art Interactives. 1998. https://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/1998/bonnard/paintings/index.html
Daelemans, Ronnie. “Bonnard: Drawing Color, Painting Light.” artcritical. March 2009. https://artcritical.com/2009/03/09/bonnard-drawing-color-painting-light/
Elderfield, John. “Bonnard.”1998. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x4c0vfLCPwk
Hainley, Bruce. “All That Heaven Allows.” Artforum. November 2019.  https://www.artforum.com/print/201909/bruce-hainley-on-pierre-bonnard-the-colour-of-memory-81072
Mann, Sargy. “ ’Let it be felt that a painter was there’ .“ Painters’ Table. 1984. https://www.painters-table.com/blog/pierre-bonnard-drawings-let-it-be-felt-painter-was-there
“Matisse Bonnard: Long Live Paintings.” Städel Museum, Frankurt, 2018. https://matissebonnard.staedelmuseum.de/en
Myers, Nicole. “Symbolism.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/symb/hd_symb.htm (August 2007)
“Pierre Bonnard.” Christies. 2011. https://www.christies.com/lotfinder/Lot/pierre-bonnard-1867-1947-terrasse-a-vernon-5407008-details.aspx
“Pierre Bonnard.” Encyclopedia of Visual Arts, Visual-Arts-Cork.com, http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/famous-artists/pierre-bonnard.htm
“Pierre Bonnard – Observing Nature.” National Gallery of Australia. https://nga.gov.au/bonnard/default.cfm?MnuID=2
“Pierre Bonnard – The Colour of Memory.” Tate Gallery. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DQy4Z14NRP0
“Stéphane Mallarmé.” Wikipedia.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stéphane_Mallarmé
“Visual Poetry – Stéphane Mallarmé.” Artphilein de Pietri Foundation. https://www.artphilein.org/exhibition/view/26/visual-poetry-–-stéphane-mallarmé
Whitefield, Sarah and J. Elderfield. Bonnard. Tate Gallery Publishing Ltd; May 1998


  1. Guess I know what you have been doing! Looking forward to reading your latest.

    On Fri, May 1, 2020 at 4:39 PM The Art of Seeing – Explore Works from Philadelphia’s Museum of Art and Rod


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