Biography of Pierre Bonnard, French Post-Impressionist Painter

pierre bonnard evening in paris
"Evening in Paris" (1911). Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Pierre Bonnard (October 3, 1867–January 23, 1947) was a French painter who helped provide a bridge between impressionism and the abstraction explored by post-impressionists. He is known for the bold colors in his work and a fondness for painting elements of everyday life.

Fast Facts: Pierre Bonnard

  • Occupation: Painter
  • Born: October 3, 1867 in Fontenay-aux-Roses, France
  • Parents: Élisabeth Mertzdorff and Eugène Bonnard,
  • Died: January 23, 1947 in Le Cannet, France
  • Education: Academie Julian, Ecole des Beaux-Arts
  • Artistic Movement: Post-Impressionism
  • Mediums: Painting, sculpture, fabric and furniture design, stained glass, illustrations
  • Selected Works: "France Champagne" (1891), "Open Window Toward the Seine" (1911), "Le Petit Dejeuner" (1936)
  • Spouse: Marthe de Meligny
  • Notable Quote: "A painting that is well composed is half finished."

Early Life and Training

Born in the town of Fontenay-aux-Roses, in greater Paris, Pierre Bonnard grew up the son of an official in the French Ministry of War. His sister, Andree, married acclaimed French operetta composer, Claude Terrasse.

Bonnard demonstrated a talent for drawing and watercolor from an early age, when he painted in the gardens of his family's country home. However, his parents did not approve of art as a career choice. At their insistence, their son studied law at the Sorbonne from 1885 to 1888. He graduated with a license for legal practice and briefly worked as a lawyer.

pierre bonnard portrait
A. Natanson / Getty Images

Despite the legal career, Bonnard continued to study art. He attended classes at the Academie Julian and met artists Paul Serusier and Maurice Denis. In 1888, Pierre began studies at the Ecole des Beaux-arts and met painter Edouard Vuillard. A year later, Bonnard sold his first work of art, a poster for France-Champagne. It won a competition to design an advertisement for the firm. The work demonstrated influence from Japanese prints and later influenced the posters of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The victory convinced Bonnard's family that he could make a living working as an artist.

In 1890, Bonnard shared a studio in Montmartre with Maurice Denis and Edouard Vuillard. There, he kicked off his career as an artist.

The Nabis

With his fellow painters, Pierre Bonnard formed the group of young French artists known as Les Nabis. The name was an adaptation of the Arabic word nabi, or prophet. The small collective was crucial to the transition from impressionism to the more abstract forms of art explored by post-impressionists. Uniformly, they admired the advancements shown in the painting of Paul Gauguin and Paul Cezanne. Writing in the journal Art et Critique in August 1890, Maurice Denis released the statement, "Remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a female nude or some sort of anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order." The group soon adopted the words as the central definition of the philosophy of the Nabis.

In 1895, Bonnard presented his first individual exposition of paintings and posters. The works demonstrated the influence of Japanese art that included multiple points of view as well as the early roots of art nouveau, a primarily decorative arts-focused movement.

Throughout the decade of 1890, Bonnard branched out into areas beyond painting. He designed furniture and fabrics. He created illustrations for a series of music books published by his brother-in-law, Claude Terrasse. In 1895, he designed a stained glass window for Louis Comfort Tiffany.

pierre bonnard dancers
"Dancers" (1896). Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Prominent French Artist

By 1900, Pierre Bonnard was one of the most prominent French contemporary artists. His paintings featured bold use of color and an often flattened perspective or even multiple points of view in one piece. Early in the new century, he traveled extensively in Europe and North Africa, but the journeys did not appear to significantly affect his art.

Bonnard frequently painted landscapes. His subject matter included favorites of the impressionists like the countryside of Normandy, France. He also liked to create elaborate interiors of rooms lit by the sun outside and featuring views of gardens outside the window. Various friends and family members appeared as figures in his paintings.

Pierre Bonnard met his future wife, Marthe de Meligny, in 1893 and she became a frequent subject in his paintings for decades, including multiple nudes. His paintings often show her washing or lying in the bath, floating in the water. They married in 1925.

Bonnard's interest in painting scenes from everyday life, whether it was friends enjoying the garden or his wife floating in the bathtub, caused some observers to label him an "intimist." That meant that he focused on the intimate, sometimes even mundane details of living. These included a series of still lifes and pictures of the kitchen table with remnants of a recent meal.

pierre bonnard open window toward the seine
"Open Window Toward the Seine" (1911). Hulton Archive / Getty Images

During his peak production years, Bonnard liked to work on many paintings at a time. He filled his studio with partially complete canvases lining the walls. It was possible because he never painted from life. He sketched what he saw, and then he later produced an image from memory in the studio. Bonnard also frequently revised his paintings before declaring them complete. Some works took many years to reach a finished state.

Late Career

Unlike most prominent European artists of the early 20th century, Bonnard appeared mostly unaffected by World War I. By the 1920s, he'd discovered his fascination with the south of France. After his marriage, he purchased a home in Le Cannet and he lived there for the rest of his life. The sun-splashed landscapes of southern France featured in many of Bonnard's late-career works.

In 1938, the Art Institute of Chicago hosted a major exhibition of paintings by Pierre Bonnard and his colleague and friend Edouard Vuillard. A year later, World War II broke out in Europe. Bonnard did not revisit Paris until after the war. He refused a commission to paint an official portrait of Marshal Petain, the French leader who collaborated with the Nazis.

For the final phase of his painting career, Bonnard focused on even bolder light and color than he was known for as a young painter. Some observers believed that the colors were so intense that they nearly obliterated the subject matter of the work. By the 1940s, Bonnard created paintings that were almost abstract. They echoed the flashy colors and abstraction of late-career Claude Monet pictures.

pierre bonnard le petit dejeuner
"Le Petit Dejeuner" (1936). Hulton Archive / Getty Images

In 1947, only days before his death, Bonnard finished the mural "St. Francis Visiting the Sick" for a church in Assy. His last painting, "The Almond Tree in Blossom," was completed only a week before he died. A 1948 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York was initially intended as a celebration of the artist's 80th birthday.

Legacy

By the time of his death, Pierre Bonnard's reputation was declining somewhat. The abstract expressionist painters were drawing significantly more attention. In more recent years, his legacy has recovered. He is now seen as one of the most idiosyncratic major painters of the 20th century. His quiet nature and independence allowed him to pursue his muse in unique directions.

Henri Matisse celebrated the work of Bonnard in the face of criticism. He said, "I maintain that Bonnard is a great artist for our time and, naturally, for posterity." Pablo Picasso disagreed. He found Bonnard's habit of continually revising works frustrating. He said, "Painting...is a matter of seizing the power."

pierre bonnard summer
"Summer" (1917). Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Sources

  • Gale, Matthew. Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory. Tate, 2019.
  • Whitfield, Sara. Bonnard. Harry N. Abrams, 1998.