The French painter Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) was one of the most original and consummate colorists of the first half of the 20th century and one of the few great painters of the period to remain unaffected by cubism.
Pierre Bonnard was born at Fontenay-aux-Roses on Oct. 13, 1867. After a false start as a law student, he began to paint in earnest at the École des Beaux-Arts. He failed to qualify for the Rome Prize competition, and in 1888 he began to spend more time at the less formal Académie Julian.
At the Académie, Bonnard met Maurice Denis, Paul Sérusier, Paul Ranson, Édouard Vuillard, and Ker Xavier Roussel, who banded together as an artistic brotherhood by 1890 and named themselves the "Nabis," a word derived from the Hebrew nebiim (prophets). This name appropriately reflected the occult and esoteric interests of the group, which met regularly at Ranson's studio. Sérusier had shown them a picture which he had painted under Paul Gauguin's direction in 1888 and which embodied the synthesist principles developed at Pont-Aven (Brittany) by Gauguin and Émile Bernard. In 1890 Denis summed up those principles in the journal Art et critique, which contained the famous dictum: "Remember that a painting, before being a battle horse, a nude, or some anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors which have been arranged in a given order."
Within the group Bonnard was known as "the Japonizing Nabi," a reference to his flat, linear, and playful style, rich in a kind of freehand pattern. Bonnard and Vuillard were the least doctrinaire members of the group. Although Bonnard accepted the basic notions of his friends relative to the flat surface, it was his visual humor, sly and gently mocking, as well as his irrepressible delight in worldly activities, which distinguished his work from theirs. Good examples of Bonnard's style at this time are Woman with Rabbit (1891) and the Croquet Game (1892).
In 1891 Bonnard began to exhibit at the Salon des Indépendants and at the galleries of Le Barc de Boutteville, a dealer who represented the Nabis as a group. Bonnard's first one-man show was held at the Durand-Ruel Gallery in 1896. In addition to easel paintings, Bonnard executed decorative screens, posters (France Champagne, 1889-1890; La Revue-blanche, 1894; L'Estampe et l'affiche, 1896), book illustrations (Marie by Nansen, 1897-1899; Verlaine's Parallèlement, 1900; Daphnis and Chloe, 1902; Renard's Histoires naturelles, 1904), lithographs (notably the set Quelques aspects de la vie de Paris, 1895), sculpture, and stage sets.
After the turn of the century Bonnard adopted a lighter palette, and his art, at least superficially, approached that of the impressionists. His continued respect for the flat surface, however, and the intermittent arbitrariness of his colors and form distortions produced an essentially more abstract style. He began to make regular trips to the south of France after 1910, and he bought a house at Le Cannet in 1925, the year of his marriage to Maria Boursin (Marthe), his companion and model since 1895. The Mediterranean light had an ever-increasing effect on his paintings, which, although strongly sensual in character, never lack an underlying structure and are brilliant exploitations of the decorative possibilities of the picture plane (for example, the Riviera and the Breakfast Room).
Bonnard visited the United States in 1926, when he served as a member of the jury of the Carnegie International Competition. His late works are freer in expression and more luminous than ever. During World War II he lived in Le Cannet, and there he died on Jan. 23, 1947. Bonnard was mild in manner and in appearance. He had a reputation for witty commentary and a sharp critical sense.
Further Reading on Pierre Bonnard
An excellent study of Bonnard in English is John Rewald, Pierre Bonnard (1948). More richly illustrated are Antoine Terrasse, Bonnard: Biographical and Critical Study (1945; trans. 1964), and André Fermigier, Pierre Bonnard (1969).
Additional Biography Sources
Watkins, Nicholas, Bonnard, London: Phaidon Press, 1994.
Cogniat, Raymond, Bonnard, New York: Crown Publishers, 1988?, 1979.