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Sometimes information about an artist’s biography adds insightful context about their body of work.
But what if the biography is filled with assumptions and rumors instead of facts?
During the forty-nine years that Marthe de Méligny and artist Pierre Bonnard were together, he created hundreds of paintings and thousands of drawings of her, at home, at her toilette (dressing or grooming) and, most famously, bathing.
Marthe de Méligny Bonnard; Date unknown
Left: Bonnard; Marthe à la nappe blanche, 1926; oil on canvas; Winter Collection and Right: Bonnard, Marthe et son chien assise devant une table, c. 1930; oil on canvas; Location unknown
From left to right: Bonnard; Femme à sa toilette (Le Peignoir), c. 1923; oil on canvas; Location unknown. Bonnard; Nude at her bath (Nu à la baignoire), 1931 and Leaving the Bath (La Sortie Du Bain), 1930; both Musée national d’Art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
Since Bonnard’s death in 1947, in exhibitions, catalog essays, novels, and in journal articles, a similar story has been repeated, the story of Marthe (“Mart”) the mad-woman and Bonnard (“Bonnar”), the chump who was stuck in difficult marriage.
Marthe died in 1942 and after Bonnard died five years later, rival claimants to their estate began court proceedings to determine the fate the 600 oil paintings, 500 gouaches and watercolors, and 5,000 drawings that remained in his studio and attic. It was then that Bonnard’s heirs discovered that Bonnard and Marthe had married, and that Bonnard had forged Marthe’s will to prevent her family from inheriting half of the estate. The thousands of artworks, worth a fortune, were transferred to the vaults of a bank while a long court battle dragged on into the 1960s. During the trial, from testimony from Bonnard’s family, disturbing accounts about Marthe began to surface.
Bonnard’s potential heirs argued that Marthe was physically and mentally unstable and suggested (without medical evidence) that she had an obsessive compulsion to bathe several times a day, either due to tuberculosis, a skin disorder, chronic pain, or several other real or imagined illnesses for which water therapy was prescribed at the time. (There is one letter written by Marthe that mentions having asthma.)
Others wondered if she suffered from a “feminine perversity”, a non-specific but gender-specific mental disorder or paranoia that led to a nervous breakdown.
Or perhaps she tortured Bonnard simply out of boredom.
During the case, the narrative that Marthe had been untrustworthy since the beginning of their relationship, that she used a fake name, lied about her age, and claimed that she was an orphan, is told for the first time.
The most salacious rumors centered around an affair that Bonnard had in the late 1910s with Renée Monchaty, who was thirty years younger than he. Bonnard proposed to Renée but, everyone assumed, he was unable to bring himself to leave sickly Marthe because he ended the relationship with Monchaty in 1921.
Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) in 1906 and Bonnard; Portrait of Mademoiselle Renée Monchaty, 1920; Private Collection
In 1925, after thirty-two years together, Bonnard and Marthe married. It was then, as they filled out the paperwork, that Bonnard learned Marthe’s birth name and exact age.
“Did she, like many girls who had ‘got into trouble’ in the provinces, come to Paris with a new identity?” (Timothy Hyman, 1998)
Allegedly, a month after the wedding, Monchaty, either in Paris or in Rome, either “shot herself upon a bed covered with white lilacs” or “slit her wrists while in the tub so that Bonnard would find her dead.” “Bonnard always felt terrible remorse for the death of that young girl,” said his great-nephew, and Marthe “suffered from a persecution mania and [hid] behind a parasol just to walk down the stairs.” (Pierre Bonnard: A Love Exposed, 1998, Tate Gallery, London and the Museum of Modern Art, New York)
“The wedding ended the ménage à trois among Marthe, Bonnard and Renée Monchaty – the painter’s model, muse and lover from 1918 onwards – who reacted by taking her own life.” (Art History News, July 2013)
The sensational, speculative details about the private lives of Bonnard, de Méligny, and Monchaty were soon integrated into the body of literature about Bonnard and added unsubstantiated context for analyzing his body of work. There was even conjecture that the cats in his paintings were secret references to Monchaty (“mon chat” – “my cat”).
“You have Renée Monchaty’s face smiling up at you and there’s a still-life with fruit and a wonderful sense of the garden. And then you suddenly see, cornered, this very unsmiling profile of Marthe. And you think, oh my god. And between them is this strange construction that I think is actually a piece of garden furniture, but it could really be an instrument of torture or something between them. And you feel Bonnard making this choice between the two women.” (Timothy Hyman in Pierre Bonnard: A Love Exposed)
“The sunny disposition of the central figure in this painting and her luminescent hue belies the darkness of the subject. The golden-haired beauty is Bonnard’s former model and lover, Renée Monchaty, who committed suicide when Bonnard married his other lover and former model, Marthe. The voyeur on the right is Marthe, casting an unsettling shadow over the otherwise joyful portrait. Bonnard abandoned the painting after Renée’s death, returning to it only after Marthe died at age 73.” (In Pictures: Bonnard’s Haunting Domesticity; Forbes Magazine, February 2009)
“Approaching the end of his life, at age seventy-eight, when Bonnard went back to add that bit of yellow to the ground in Young Women in the Garden, he added one more color change as well: a gilded, yellow shine to Monchaty. Bonnard made Monchaty even brighter. She stood out, even more, as the center of the work. Perhaps, having failed to find himself in his late wife, Bonnard thought that Monchaty might have been the key. But still, that was never the issue. He was, like so many of us, unable to see himself fully — whether he was looking at himself straight on in his mirror self-portraits or projecting himself onto de Méligny, who was, of course, never even Marthe de Méligny at all.” (You’ll Never Know Yourself: Bonnard and the Color of Memory; The Paris Review, March 13, 2019)
Art critics speculated that Bonnard’s paintings of Marthe increasingly alluded to the guilt they shared and Marthe’s disintegrating health and neurotic habits. Trapped, Bonnard was forced to limit his subject matter to images of home.
“A woman is on an apple-green balcony gazing across the landscape. We barely glimpse her profile. It is Marthe. On the desk is Marie, a Danish novel by Peter Nansen that Bonnard had illustrated in 1897, among the earliest drawings for which Marthe ever posed. In those illustrations, she looks like a child. Back then, Bonnard also painted her in black stockings, sexually spent on unmade beds, the receptacle of his young erotic reveries. On the balcony, she is sexless and plain, a domestic fact, staring vacantly into space. We note that the plot of Marie entailed an upper-class man who seduced a lower-class woman, abandoned her, and then returned only when she felt ill.” “Timothy Hyman has cleverly called (the picture) a coded message from prison’.” (The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa; Michael Kimmelman; Penguin Books, 2005)
Although his paintings sold well while he was alive, many of Bonnard’s mature works were not available for exhibition until after the estate was settled. By then, his reputation had been eclipsed in the 1940s – 1950s by the machismo of Abstract Expressionism and other art movements that followed. “His painting (was) seen as anachronistic – a blend of Impressionist brushwork and bland domestic subjects that seemed to reflect a quaint and compromised modernism outside the significant developments in the history of modern art.” (Jack Flam, 2009)
At times, the critics’ responses to his work were ruthless, for example, during a major exhibition of his work in 1998 at the Tate Modern, London.
“Bonnard devoted his mature art to (Marthe’s) lazy, glistening, depressed presence. The late Twentieth-century likes its weirdos. Marthe has done more than anyone to focus cheap attention on Bonnard.” (Waldemar Januszczak)
The bath series is “exquisite rot, canvases shimmering with the iridescence of putrefaction.” (Linda Nochlin)
“[Marthe] seems already dead; her pale, cadaverous figure subsumed into the blue tones of the water.” (Tamar Garb)
“Certainly there is something disagreeable about [Marthe’s] purplish mottled head, so oddly separate from the underwater body.” (Hyman)
… “like a mummy in a sarcophagus.” (Graham-Dixon)
Bonnard was imagined as “trapped within the atmosphere of a largely female domain. It was a place of both refuge and confinement […] Bonnard was drawn to the windows, only to encounter the flattened presence of Marthe, his muse and jailer.” (Nicholas Watkins)
Bonnard; The Dressing Room, 1914; oil on canvas; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC
Bonnard’s series of the bathing Marthe chronicles of “a husband’s loss of desire for his wife […] The mystery on which allure depends is gone.” (Dorment, 1998)
“Bathing and moping, indeed, seems to be what she does best […], she appears indifferent to everything” (Searle, 1998).
Bonnard; In the Bathroom (Dans la salle de bain), c. 1940; oil on canvas; Location unknown
“It feels to me as if, and it’s entirely speculation, that it’s only when [Marthe] dies that he realizes what an impoverished life he’s been living with her.” (Adam Phillips, 1998)
Bonnard; Le Petit Déjeuner, radiateur, c. 1930; oil on canvas; Private Collection
She was “basically a nutcase” who was “wholly dependent him, the dubious martyr, who needed, nursed and used her dependence.” (Lubbock, 1998)
Bonnard; The Studio with Mimosa (L’Atelier au mimosa), 1939–46; oil on canvas; Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris
“It is significant that Bonnard’s work is at its most provocative when he kills off or mutilates his subject: Marthe dismembered or floating in death-like passivity is the heroine of his most exciting canvases. Did he love her or hate her, or, as is so often the case, feel some combination of both?”
“…I am … so repelled by this transformation of woman into thing … such melting of woman into the object of molten desire of the male painter, that I want to plunge a knife into that delectable body surface and shout ‘Wake up. Throw him into the bathtub. Get out of the bathtub and dry off.’ “ (Linda Nochlin)
Bonnard; Nude in the Bath (Nu dans la baignoire), 1925; oil on canvas; Tate, London
“Get out of the bathtub and dry off” . . . and do what? During Marthe’s lifetime, Freud believed that women experienced hysteria because they were unable to reconcile the loss of their (metaphoric) penis (McVean Ada. The History of Hysteria, July 2017; Publication from McGill University, Montreal, Quebec), women in France had to obtain legal permission from their husbands to work, and Marthe died before ever having the right to vote. Also, there’s no evidence that Bonnard wanted his paintings to be interpreted as persistently recycled derogatory allegories about his personal life.
Who brings a tale takes two away. – Old Proverb
Norman Rockwell; The Gossips, 1948. Painting for “The Saturday Evening Post” cover, March 6, 1948. Oil on canvas. Private collection.
Author Julian Barnes, in a series of essays entitled Keeping the Eye Open (2015), observes how a little information can twist opinions about Bonnard’s art. “In Bonnard’s case, imagine if the Monchaty story turned out to be a hoax: Would we then read the pictures differently? Isn’t there something slightly disappointing about our need to equip all artists with a certificate of darkness?”
Pierre Bonnard and Marthe de Méligny, 1920
In 2018, Louise Wallace (Who Killed Marthe Bonnard? Madness, Morbidity, and Pierre Bonnard’s The Bath) and in 2020, Lucy Whelan (Who was Marthe Bonnard? New evidence paints a different picture of Pierre Bonnard’s wife and model) review recently discovered documents that contradict much of what has been portrayed about Marthe. Whelan’s research revealed that:
- The notion that Marthe was always in the bath has no real basis
- The stories about Marthe’s instability originated from testimony during the legal dispute over the artist’s estate that was given by individuals who benefited from such tales
- The varied accounts about Monchaty’s suicide don’t match what is documented on her death certificate (which states she died at home before the Bonnards married), and that
- Bonnard’s own letters suggest that Marthe’s physical troubles and emotional anxiety did not develop until she became increasing ill during the final decade of her life.
Wallace reviews how bias and prejudice formed Bonnard’s reputation as an artist. His body of work, which didn’t fit comfortably with other art movements at the time – Cubism, Dada, Surrealism – bewildered the critics.
There’s also a long tradition in sculpture and in painting where nude female bathers are depicted as mythical goddesses, studies of form, allegories, or as sexually desirable objects. Marthe didn’t appear to be any of these, so clearly, something had to be very wrong with Marthe.
Marthe de Méligny photographed by Bonnard, date unknown
And something had to be very wrong with Bonnard. It seemed “suspiciously unnatural” for a heterosexual man to limit his subject matter to images of home and to one woman, especially if that woman was “mad Marthe”.
“We must account for the self-denial involved in devoting oneself to painting the same woman for an entire lifetime […] If Bonnard’s nudes look peeled, scraped, excoriated as if skinned alive […] it is because their presence bars any Apollonian dreams of happiness.” (Comar, 2016)
André Ostier; Pierre Bonnard, 1941
Ongoing examination about gender-role stereotypes and depictions of gender will hopefully help viewers reconsider how art is studied and interpreted with a deeper understanding. Information about an artist’s biography can add insightful context about their body of work but, whether you’re visiting a museum or looking at a mural painted on an outside wall somewhere in your town, knowing whether or not the artist was chasing “Apollonian dreams of happiness” may be interesting but it isn’t necessary. The compositional elements that artists consider and choose deliberately create a visual experience that can teach viewers how to look more critically. For example, with Bonnard,
His choice of colors and their placement shift figures in and out of focus,
Natural-looking horizontal planes, like tabletops, tilt to become parallel with the surface of the canvas,
Forms liquefy into adjacent patches of color and then slowly solidify again,
Mirrors construct compositions within compositions,
Overlapping zones of shading extend figures into adjacent rooms,
Empty spaces are focal points,
And because images change as you look at them, the subject of the paintings includes the passage of time.
Bonnard’s paintings of Marthe, perhaps more than any other of his subjects, express the development of his style, from its roots to artistic maturity.
Times are changing; it’s time to drain the sarcophagus of scandal. Please return next month to fill the tub and dive into Bonnard’s luminous, space-shifting, color-soaked paintings of Marthe.
– Meighan Maley