Painting Her Presence – Pierre Bonnard’s Paintings of Marthe de Méligny (Bonnard, Part Three)

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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. 

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

During the forty-nine years that Bonnard and Marthe (“Mart”) were together, he created hundreds of paintings and watercolors and thousands of drawings of her, at home, at her toilette (dressing or grooming), and, most famously, bathing.

At first glance, they appear to be straightforward images from their daily life but very little about them is straightforward. Ordinary objects take on odd shapes. Colors vibrate. Forms move in and out of view. Space opens and then flattens again against the canvas.

Bonnard’s paintings of Marthe, more than anything else in his body of work, show the development of his style from its beginnings to its maturity. In the chronology of artworks that follow, whatever catches your eye first, think of it as a welcome mat and dive in. Keep in mind that every color, every line, every shape, and every brushstroke was a thoughtful, deliberate choice that Bonnard made after ruling out every other option. Each is an opportunity for us to wander and wonder why.

Soon after Bonnard and Marthe met in 1893, he created several paintings that depict a young woman pulling on a pair of black stockings. 

Left: Unknown artists; Detail of Smell from The Lady and the Unicorn series, wool and silk; c. 1500; Musée de Cluny – Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris and Right: Bonnard; Woman Pulling Up Her Stockings, 1893; oil on board; Private Collection

Inspired by the decorative qualities of the Flemish tapestries that he saw at Musée de Cluny in Paris – large flat surfaces filled with areas of color, patterns, and strong lines – he wove his colors and lines together so that her clothing, the material upon which she sits, and even the surface of the canvas appear to be entwined. Marthe is thought to be the model for these paintings.

During the late 1800s, Bonnard received a commission to create a series of drawings as illustrations for Paul Verlaine’s poetry collection, Parallèlement. Several of these drawings were used as studies for paintings. Again, Marthe is the model.

Left: Bonnard; An illustration for Paul Verlaine’s poetry collection, Parallèlement, published in 1900 and Right: Bonnard; Indolence (Woman Dozing on a Bed[L’indolente (Femme assoupie sur un lit)], 1899; oil on canvas; Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Marthe’s figure provocatively dissolves into the disheveled sheets that seep across the empty space on the bed. As if they’re liquefying, the bed covers that have been pushed down to the bottom of the bed wash back into the picture like sea foam. Bonnard’s presence is indicated by a trail of smoke drifting from his pipe towards her.

Indolence is considered to be one of Bonnard’s greatest paintings from his early period because it illustrates several features that became characteristic of his work: the subject and paint are enmeshed, the flat perspective appears to push shapes up to the canvas’s surface, and an expanse of empty space across the picture’s surface. 

Around the same time that Bonnard was painting Indolence, he attended an exhibition of Japanese prints at the Paris School of Fine Arts. Like many other artists at the time, he was fascinated by the artists’ use of flat areas of color, tilted perspectives, and graphic designs and began to introduce these elements into his artworks.

Left: Suzuki Harunobu; Courtesan as Daruma Crossing the River, c. 1765-1767; color woodcut; Philadelphia Museum of Art and Right: Bonnard; Woman with Dog, or Woman and Dog at Table (Femme au chien, ou Femme et chien à table), 1908; oil paint on cardboard mounted to a panel; Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

This emerging and melting quality of subject and color, an element of Bonnard’s greatest paintings, began to elude him when he painted from a live model, even Marthe. “If you paint directly from a subject, your thoughts about the subject change as you paint,” he said. Therefore, although images from Bonnard’s paintings came from his daily life, he rarely painted directly from life and occasionally borrowed poses from classical sculptures.

Left: Artist unknown; Sleeping Hermaphrodite, Hellenistic Art (3rd-1st centuries BCE); marble; Musée du Louvre, Paris and Right: Bonnard; Siesta (La Sieste), 1900; oil on canvas; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Marthe’s pose, and that of her small dog, recall a pose made famous by a classical sculpture, Sleeping Hermaphrodite, which Bonnard may have seen in the Louvre. In Siesta, Marthe appears to be slipping off the bed yet the strong diagonal created by the table to her right reinforces the line of her upper left leg and visually pushes her up and back onto the bed. The clutter of unstable objects should slip off the tipped table but are glued in place optically by the bright white tablecloth. The vertical lines on both wallpaper patterns continue from one pattern to the next and flatten the room’s corner.

The connections to sculpture in Bonnard’s paintings are wide-ranging. Sometimes he borrowed the position of an arm or a profile. At other times, he appropriated the entire pose.  

Artist Unknown, Italian; Spinario (after the Antique), late 1800s; bronze; Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Spinario, or The Thorn Puller was a Hellenistic statue (now lost) that became widely known through a Roman marble copy; many other copies were made over hundreds of years. The figure’s pose, a child-like lack of self-consciousness, inspired many artists, including Bonnard.

He reworked the pose in many of the images of Marthe seated in the bathroom washing or powdering her feet.

Left: Bonnard; Woman with Black Stockings (La Femme aux bas noirs), 1900; Private Collection and Right: Bonnard; Woman with Black Stockings (La Femme aux bas noirs), 1900; oil on cardboard; Rosengart Art Museum, Lucerne 

In 1900, during the birth of Cubism and other Modern Art movements, Bonnard and Marthe moved to the countryside. (“Cubism left me hanging in the air,” said Bonnard.) That summer, he and Marthe took nude photographs of each other while in the garden. It was an opportunity for Bonnard to work out various candid poses for Marthe.

Left: Photo by Pierre Bonnard; Marthe Drying Her Leg, c. 1900 and Right: Woman Bending Over [Toilette ou Femme Penchèe], 1907; oil on canvas; Niigata City Art Museum, Japan

Photographs also allowed him to investigate a compositional device that he came to use frequently, creating a painting around an empty space – round or oval tubs and then later, rectangular windows and doors – as a visual entry point into the picture.

Left: Bonnard; Marthe au tub, 1908-10 and Right: Bonnard; Nude Crouching in the Tub, 1918; oil on canvas; Musée d’Orsay, Paris

He soon found the single viewpoint of a photograph too limiting and began to fill notebook with sketches of whatever struck him in a particular moment. He then used the drawings to prod his memory when painted the image on a canvas. (See Bonnard, Part One to read about his techniques and process.)

Bonnard; La Toilette Assise, 1925; Lithograph; Philadelphia Museum of Art 

Drawings also allowed Bonnard to work out novel ideas for the composition before committing to paint on canvas. In this sketch, Bonnard looks out of the painting and back into it again through a mirror. 

Bonnard; Standing Nude with Head of the Artist, 1930; charcoal on paper; location unknown

Left: Bonnard; Study for Man and Woman, c. 1899, pencil on paper; location unknown and Right: Bonnard; The Man and The Woman, 1900; oil on canvas;  Musée d’Orsay, Paris

In The Man and the Woman, Bonnard places a tall, narrow folded dressing screen in the center of the composition, a hint to consider each section separately.

On the left side of the painting, Marthe, viewed from above, sits on a bed and plays with two kittens. Her space is balanced from top to bottom into thirds: the area above her head, the space that she occupies, and the basket at the foot of the bed. Why might her figure look proportionally so much smaller than his?

On the other side, Bonnard, who is standing and holding a white sheet or towel, is viewed from a different angle. The more thoroughly you examine his space, the more unclear it becomes. What’s directly behind him? Is it another bed? What’s the streak of paint across his left knee? What are the strange patches of white beside his shoulder? 

Are we positioned in front of the couple or are we looking at their reflection in a mirror? Might Bonnard be looking out of the painting and back into it again through a mirror? Perhaps one of the subjects of this painting is the act of looking thoughtfully and puzzling it together over a period of time.

As Bonnard developed as an artist, his depiction of space became increasingly ambiguous.

We’re looking at a reflection in a mirror, therefore, almost everything we see is behind us. The image in the mirror becomes a canvas within a canvas. 

The zig-zag pattern in the mirror draws attention to the width of the space that is simultaneously behind and in front of us as well as flat against the wall. Although there must be several feet between the basin on the shelf and the tub on the floor, in the mirror, they stack like pie-pans.

Bonnard; Reflection (The Tub); 1909; media unknown; Private Collection

Bonnard’s luminous brushstrokes of color that suggest form and space became less constrained. 

 

Bonnard painted After the Shower while he and Marthe rented a villa in Saint-Tropez during the winter of 1914.

Wearing a dressing gown, Marthe sits to dry her foot in a pose borrowed from the Spinario. Light streams in through the window in the upper left corner and permeates everything it touches – the floor, walls, shutters, towels, objects on the table – and casts the shutter’s shadow on the wall and towel behind her.

Bonnard; After the Shower, 1914; oil on canvas; Philadelphia Museum of Art

Pretend to split the canvas into two vertical sections.

On the left side, the horizontal and vertical lines (that I highlighted in red) create the illusion we’re looking into a room that’s almost directly in front of us.

On the right side, the lines that imply space and the position of objects (highlighted in various colors) suggest we’re looking diagonally into the room.

Bonnard reinvents the laws of perspective to give a spontaneous, snapshot-like quality to the painting.

In 1912, Bonnard purchased a home in Vernonnet, a village on the river Seine near Giverny. Its stilted frame, wooden balcony, garden, and glorious views of the river became subjects for his works. 

George Besson; Pierre and Marthe Bonnard at their home in Vernonnet, 1920

The wide-open doors and windows in his paintings are conduits of light that the viewer is meant to follow as it colors, highlights, and drifts in and through open or empty spaces to – 

transform a white tablecloth to cool blues, brush across a door, penetrate through windowpanes, cast shadows, highlight the transparent curtain to the right of the open door, and waft through the layers of space behind the curtain to lead us back outdoors.

Have you found the two cats?

Bonnard; Dining Room in the Country (Salle à manger à la campagne), 1913; oil on canvas; Minneapolis Institute of Art

Bonnard said that a painting could never have enough yellow. For him, yellow is the color that describes light, that gives off light, that is light.

It’s as if you’ve been lured to the open window by the cool greens and blues and on the way, become so absorbed by the lilacs, oranges, and yellows that it takes time to notice Marthe quietly sitting in the chair.

Bonnard; The Open Window, Vernon (La Fenêtre Ouverte), 1921; oil on canvas; The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. 

In 1925, the year that Bonnard and Marthe married, he began a series of paintings of her figure stretched across the canvas in a bathtub and submerged in water up to her neck. The series allowed him to explore a new element, showing a body under water, peacefully dissolving and reemerging into patches of color, intimate and infinite.

The composition is held together by an imaginary 4×4 grid: the implied vertical sections created by the four wall tiles and four horizontal areas – the tiles again, the white side of the bathtub, her immersed body, and the rim and the floor. The tub, the water, and her body are painted with barely distinguishable changes of color that float very slowly and softly across the canvas, like an expanse of sky.

Bonnard; The Bath, 1925; oil on canvas; Tate Modern, London

Don’t get seasick. The tub is so tilted that water might slosh out of the canvas. The rest of the bathroom is kept landlocked by the slippered foot that enters from the left and anchors the rug.  

Bonnard; Nude in the Bath (Nu dans la baignoire), 1925; oil on canvas; Tate, London

In 1926, the year after they married, the Bonnards purchased a home in the south of France. They removed several interior walls to create a greater sense of space, added French windows let in more light, added a two-story art studio for him, and a modern bathroom – with full-length tub – for Marthe.

Left: Bonnard; Femme endormie, 1928; media and location unknown and Right: Bonnard in his studio; photographer and date unknown.

Femme endormie is one of the few paintings that depicts Marthe in the studio, here, dozing in a chair by a window in the heat of a summer afternoon. The radiator’s silver steam pipe and the window molding frame the landscape outside as though we’re looking at a corner of another painting. The palette of colors that brushes across Marthe’s hair, clothing, and skin vibrate within the patches of oranges, yellows, and violet shadows on the wall behind her. 

Bonnard’s paintings became more complex spatially as he relied increasingly on drawings as starting points for his paintings. By moving his head slightly while he drew, he was able to sketch multiple subtle shifting viewpoints.

Left to right: The Bonnard’s drawing room, dining room, and sketch for White Interior

Bonnard; White Interior (L’Intérieur blanc), 1932; oil on canvas; Musée de Grenoble, Grenoble

The spatial field in White Interior is much wider than what the eye could take in at a single glance. Bonnard eliminated the corner of the room and flattened the two walls across the surface of the canvas, as though we were looking through a wide-angle lens. The walls are now an abstract succession of overlapping planes that, like the squeezed bellows of an accordion, that recede and emerge as your eye moves across the canvas. To see the fireplace, the door, the corner, the radiator, and the porch doors in real life from the perspective he’s shown in the painting, you’d have to move to different positions around the room.

Each dab of white, the matrix that holds it all together, gives weight and form to each object and is also rhythmically connected to the rich reds and apricot yellows throughout the composition. For example, the white lines in the radiator are counterpointed by the lines in the clothing that covers Marthe’s arched back; she almost blends into the floor. The spots on the cat beside her echo the pattern on the marble floor in front of the fireplace. The landscape that can be seen through the doors and windows is also reflected in the windows of the open door.

During the Nazi occupation of France, shortages of fuel and food left them housebound. Bonnard and Matisse, who lived nearby, helped one another find art supplies. Marthe, whose health was deteriorating, remained his principal subject and his colors became more intense and expressive. 

In the real bathroom, the walls were covered with white ceramic tiles that had a small indent in the center, which intensified the reflection of light.

To depict the shifting light on canvas, he scumbled bold, luminous, opalescent, and rich colors (painted layer over layer unevenly so that the underlying colors show through to soften colors or outlines) so that color was not based on value (how light or dark it is) but only on color itself. Light transforms one color into another.

In his last three paintings of Marthe outstretched in the bath, Bonnard portrays her as he did in every other painting, as the young woman he met thirty years earlier.

The white walls and diamond-shapes on the floor become iridescent yellows, greens, pinks, and purples. What is in shadow? In light? What is dry? Wet? Is her body still or does is move gently in the water? 

Bonnard; Nude in the Bath (Nu dans le bain); 1936–38; Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

He equalized and flattened space by –

constructing forms out of two-dimensional patterns,

by painting color blotches of equal intensities so that they appear to be in the same position in space,

Bonnard; The Large Bath, Nude, 1937-9; Private Collection

and by placing advancing warm colors (orange, yellow) in the “distant” (top) areas of the painting and receding cool colors (blue, violet) in the “closest” (bottom) areas of the canvas.

In the final painting, the shape of the bathtub conforms to the curves of the head, bent right knee, and extended left leg. Light drenches the picture while their small dog, Pouce, rests quietly.

Bonnard; Nude in the Bath and Small Dog, 1941-46; oil on canvas; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh

Fellow friend and artist Maurice Denis said, “These intimate scenes by Bonnard, these young women dreaming, doing their hair, undressing, these women sewing, or reading, these bathers with their lissome bodies and pink thighs, all are imbued with tenderness, with optimism, and, in a word, poetry.” 

Marthe died in 1942, at age seventy-two, before Bonnard finished Nude in the Bath and Small Dog. He continued to work on it for several more years. “You can’t imagine my grief and the full extent of my sorrow,” he wrote to Matisse. ” … Marthe suffered a great deal for a month, with almost all her organs affected; an episode of heart failure took her away before me, apparently without her being aware of it. … After long days of painful loneliness … I am preparing to return to Paris where I will be closer to my family. I can’t stay on alone here.”

After Bonnard passed away in 1947 at age eighty, their families learned for the first time that he and Marthe were married. (See Bonnard, Part Two).  

Étienne Ostier; Bonnard in his studio at standing in front of Nude in the Bath and Small Dog, 1941

Years later during an interview, Henri Cartier–Bresson recalled photographing Bonnard. “I don’t know how long I remained sitting opposite Bonnard … hours. At one point I shot; he raised his head and asked me, ‘Why did you choose that particular moment?’ I asked him, ‘Why did you use yellow here, in this painting?’ He smiled. He did not say anything. We didn’t need to explain ourselves.”

Henri Cartier-Bresson; Pierre Bonnard in his studio, 1944

– Meighan Maley

Top Image: Bonnard; Still Life with Figure, 1912; oil on canvas; Private Collection

References

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 and Escapism

Delistraty Cody. “You’ll Never Know Yourself: Bonnard and the Color of Memory”. The Paris Review, March 13, 2019. https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2019/03/13/youll-never-know-yourself-bonnard-and-the-color-of-memory/

Bonnard: Drawing Color, Painting Light; Art Critical; March 9. 20009

Femme endormie; Christies  

Getting the White Right (Gamblin) 

Graham-Dixon Andrew. “Bonnard: The Home that Shaped the Master.” The Independent, January 1998. https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/art-chez-bonnard-the-home-that-shaped-the-master-1141995.html

Looking Out of the Window

Panero James. “Bonnard’s Butterflies”. The New Criterion, December 2002. https://newcriterion.com/issues/2002/12/bonnards-butterflies

“Pierre Bonnard: A Love Exposed”, A documentary produced to coincide with the 1998 exhibition of Pierre Bonnard’s work at the Tate Gallery in London and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YcqLCHVsrJ4

Pierre Bonnard; Sotheby’s. https://www.sothebys.com/en/artists/pierre-bonnard?locale=en

The Nabis and Decorative Painting, Metropolitan Museum of Art. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/dcpt/hd_dcpt.htm

Siesta; National Gallery of Australia

The Man and the Woman; National Gallery of Australia

Vermilion in the Orange Shadow: Bonnard’s Late Paintings

Whitfield, Sarah and J. Elderfield. Bonnard. Tate Gallery Publishing Ltd; May 1998.

2 comments

  1. Brava! I love this one and feel that I already had an inkling of it from your presentation. You are a born art historian.

    Xo

    On Sun, Jul 5, 2020 at 3:33 PM The Art of Seeing – Explore Works from Philadelphia’s Museum of Art and Rod

    Like

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