Pierre Bonnard is one of the influential masters of the early twentieth century. He gave us a glimpse into his private world through paintings of his muse, his dogs, and his various homes and their surroundings in Paris, Normandy, and the south of France. The theme of the show at the Kimbell Art Museum (Nov. 5, 2023-Jan. 28, 2024) is “worlds within worlds,” and the paintings are organized accordingly.
The exhibition was inspired by the museum’s acquisition of Bonnard’s Paysage au Cannet (Landscape at Cannet) in 2018. This large landscape depicts the view from his family home acquired in 1927. Bonnard reclines in the foreground as the land falls away, dramatically revealing the village surrounded by rolling hills and mountains.
“Bonnard was spending the winter months in the south of France,” said George Shackelford, Kimbell’s deputy director who conceived and organized the show. “He rented studios in Antibes and Saint Tropez. His home in Cannet is impeccably preserved, almost as though he just walked away from it.”
Bonnard was born in 1867 in Paris to a father who was a senior official in the French Ministry of War. He studied law to please his father, all while taking art instruction. At school, he met the painters Maurice Denis, Paul Sérusier, Édouard Vuillard, and Ker Xavier Roussel, with whom he would form Les Nabis (The Prophets), a group of artists inspired by the poetic Symbolist movement and Paul Gauguin’s paintings. These young painters sought to express their emotions and spirituality using color and form.
Bonnard met Marthe de Meligny in 1893, and they lived together until her death in 1942. Marthe became Bonnard’s model and muse. If there is a woman in his paintings, it is likely her.
Shackelford organized the 70 paintings thematically. “No matter where Bonnard is painting or when it is, he always comes back to the same themes,” Shackelford said. “Worlds within his world is my organizing principle. The exhibition begins with his public surroundings, a view from a hillside in the south of France or a Paris apartment or across the Seine.”
The exhibition proceeds to the more private spaces of the garden. Crépuscule (La Partie de croquet or Twilight (The Game of Croquet) depicts Bonnard’s family in the garden of his grandfather’s home in the Dauphiné. The players include his father, his sister and her husband, and a cousin, while young girls frolic in the background. Borrowed from the Musée d’Orsay, this early painting is a masterpiece of light and shadow, rhythm and patterning.
After the garden paintings, Bonnard moves inside the house but is still concerned with the outdoors as seen through the window. In Grande salle à manger sur le jardin (Dining Room on the Garden), the artist tips the table to display a bouquet of flowers, yellow bowls of fruit, a book, and a white mug and pitcher, all presented on a lavender tablecloth. Marthe stands behind the table to the right of the window, seeming to blend into the wall. From the view out the window, it appears to be l’heure bleu, the time when day transitions into night. Bonnard understands the power of complementary colors, using blue and orange, as well as purple and yellow, to create an evocative effect.
Next, Bonnard turns to the inside of the house to paint the common areas—the family at table, a tableaux of flowers, books on a table. “After this, we move into the more private spaces,” Shackelford said. “In the museum, we move from the south gallery with the skylights to the west gallery, where it’s darker and has lower ceilings—these are the bedroom and dressing-room paintings.”
And then, perhaps Bonnard’s best-known paintings—those of Marthe in the bath. “The three late great bathtub paintings have been united,” said Shackelford. “One from the City Museum of Paris, one from the Carnegie Museum of Art, and the third from a private collection in Europe. When you hang them together, it’s really powerful.”
The finale of the show is a trio of self-portraits of Bonnard gazing in the mirror—from 1916, 1931, and 1945. What was Bonnard actually like? “Think the opposite of Picasso,” said Shackelford. “He was modest, self-effacing, and quiet.” Bonnard and Marthe lived a very simple life, although they were friends with Matisse, Monet, and Signac, among others. When they rented a house in Normandy near Monet’s home and gardens, they saw one another frequently.
According to Sarah Whitfield, who organized an exhibition of Bonnard’s work in 1998, he was “a profoundly radical painter who broke new ground by taking as his subject the difficult, complex and mysterious nature of sensory awareness…. exploring and analyzing ways in which visual perception interlock with the processes of memory.”
Marthe predeceased Bonnard by five years, and he spent the war years in their home in the south. He completed his last painting, L’Amandier en fleurs (The Almond Tree in Blossom), a week before his death in 1947 at the age of 79.
Bonnard painted what he loved—his family, his surroundings, his companion, and his animals. Of his technique, he said, “…before I start painting, I reflect, I dream.”