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 Pierre Bonnard  (1867 - 1947)

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Lived/Active: France      Known for: nude female figure and floral painting

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from Auction House Records.
Terrasse à Vernon
© Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Pierre Bonnard was born at Fortenay-aux-Roses in France in 1867.  He is considered to have been the most important "pure" painter of his generation in the tradition of the great colorists - Delacroix, Gauguin, Redon.  He came to art after false starts in efforts to follow his father into the French civil service and chafing law studies.

He worked at the Ecole de Beaux Arts and at the Academie Julian in 1888.  There he met Edouard Viullard and Maurice Denis, with whom he shared a studio in 1890.  In 1891 he began to exhibit and in 1896 he held his first one-man show.  Bonnard and his friends Roussel and Vallotton were known as the Nabis (Hebrew for Prophets).  During the 1890s and the 1900s Bonnard's decorative flair was particularly in evidence.  His work during this period had affinities with Art Nouveau in its linear rhythms and decorative qualities.  He was attracted to poster design and his first poster in 1889 was one of the factors which determined his decision to become an artist against family opposition.

In 1893 Bonnard's life took a landmark turn when he met a young woman selling artificial flowers on the Boulevard Haussman in Paris.  She called herself Marthe de Meligny and said she was still a teenager.  Her real name was Marie Mousin, and she was twenty-six. For the next forty years she would become Bonnard's companion, confidant and his most enduring model.  As an artist, Bonnard once said, he had all his subjects close at hand; it was Marthe who was always closest.  In a sense, she was the star of his more important exhibits.  She was painted with great sensuousness in her bath, in her bedroom and in their bed in what critics have called some of the greatest nude paintings of the century.

A mousy, stoop-shouldered little genius in steel-rimmed glasses, Bonnard has sometimes appeared thin and small against the immensity of his impressive forerunners.  It generally takes swagger to get quick glory, even in art, and Bonnard had none.  When strangers sought him at his villa, he would pad out to meet them at the gate and blandly announce that "M. Bonnard is out."

The Nabis were one of the two groups that had attracted Doktor Arthur and Hedy Hahnloser, a couple of Swiss art lovers whose collection of post-impressionist painting was very impressive.  Bonnard was the most frequent visitor to the Hahnloser's home, but the shyest among the painters, all of whom frequently visited their home and became their friends.  The Hahnlosers eagerly pressed Bonnard to paint their portraits, but Bonnard did not see what he wanted until one day, while sailing in the Mediterranean, he found just the right pose for Hedy in a blue sweater against the sail.

Firmly established by the first World War, Bonnard's position among painters continued to strengthen.  By 1925, the date of the first of his many representations of the nude in the bathtub, he had settled in Le Cannet in the Midi in a villa he named Le Bosquet.  He married Marthe de Moligny and for the years they were married he painted her in every possible activity in the bathrooms and bedrooms in their home.  She died in 1940 after the fall of France.  To avoid difficulties Bonnard forged a will and this led to serious legal complications after his death.

Bonnard's greatness lies particularly in his intimate domestic interiors and his poetic interpretations of the Parisian scene.  From about 1910 he developed an enthusiasm for the landscape of Mediterranean and southern France.  About 1915 he became dissatisfied with his work and deliberately gave stricter attention to formal qualities.  He was essentially a colorist with a deep feeling for the sensuous quality of paint.  But his later paintings had a structural strength which has not always been recognized.  Once Bonnard had perfected his palette he maintained a consistently high standard right up to his last sumptuous painting. The Almond Tree in Flower was completed from his bed a week before his death on February 3, 1947.

Compiled and submitted August 2004 by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher from Laguna Woods, California.


Biography from Anderson Galleries:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Pierre Bonnard was born in Fontenay-aux-Roses, Hauts-de-Seine. He led a happy and carefree youth as the son of a prominent official of the French Ministry of War. At the insistence of his father, Bonnard studied law, graduating and practicing as a barrister briefly. However, he had also attended art classes on the side, and soon decided to become an artist.

In 1891 he met Toulouse-Lautrec and began showing his work at the annual exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants. His first show was at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in 1896.

In his twenties he was a part of Les Nabis, a group of young artists committed to creating work of symbolic and spiritual nature.  Other Nabis include Édouard Vuillard and Maurice Denis. He left Paris in 1910 for the south of France.

Bonnard is known for his intense use of color, especially via areas built with small brushmarks and close values. His often complex compositions—typically of sunlit interiors of rooms and gardens populated with friends and family members—are both narrative and autobiographical. His wife Marthe was an ever-present subject over the course of several decades. She is seen seated at the kitchen table, with the remnants of a meal; or nude, as in a series of paintings where she reclines in the bathtub. He also painted several self-portraits, landscapes, and many still lifes which usually depict flowers and fruit.

Bonnard did not paint from life but rather drew his subject—sometimes photographing it as well—and made notes on the colors. He then painted the canvas in his studio from his notes.

In 1938 there was a major exhibition of his work along with Vuillard's at the Art Institute of Chicago. He finished his last painting, The Almond Tree in Blossom, a week before his death in his cottage on La Route de Serra Capeou near Le Cannet, on the French Riviera, in 1947. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City organized a posthumous retrospective of Bonnard's work in 1948, although originally it was meant to be a celebration of the artist's eightieth birthday.

Two major exhibitions of Bonnard's work took place in 1998: February through May at the Tate Gallery in London, and from June through October at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

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