Pierre Bonnard

Pierre Bonnard

Painter and lithographer Pierre Bonnard was one of the founding members of Les Nabis (seers), one of the Post-Impressionist groups that followed the avant-garde philosophy, abandoning 3-D modeling and used flat depth of field instead. Although he was a Nabis painter he turned away from choosing mystical Symbolist subject matter. He worked from memory though, and used painting as a way to express and represent these memories. This is also why his works are rich in dream-like images.

Bonnard has also been known for his intimist approach. He would always find delight in the scenes of daily life, allowing him to paint joyous and optimistic themes. For him, seeing life in color is a great way to experience the world. This explains why he would typically mix a particular color to make it satisfactory to his liking. He would make a couple of touch ups until he feels satisfied with the outcome. Most of his subjects were painted based on how and what he remembers about them. In some cases, he would use photos as a model for his works and this allowed him to paint inside his studio.

As a painter of daily life and simple objects, he developed the skill to design screens, puppets, furniture, illustrated books and patterns for textile products. He was also a designer for theaters organizing the props, and these side-line activities generated him enough fortune and reputation to stay as a formidable figure of Les Nabis group. He even earned the accolade “the most thoroughly idiosyncratic of all the great 20th century painters” from his colleagues and contemporaries.

Bonnard was a great example of a painter who uses colors to express warm emotions yet intensified with dream-like spatial effects. Some of his major works include Cats on the Railing (1909), The Terrace at Vernonnet (1939), The Dining Room in the Country (1913), Landscape at Le Cannet (1945), and Woman Reclining on a Bed (1899).

Early Life and Career

Pierre Bonnard was born on October 3 1867 in Fontenay-aux-Roses, France. He was the son of a high-ranking military official of the country’s Ministry of War. His father originally wanted him to become a lawyer, which he did graduate with a Bachelor of Law degree at Sorbonne in 1888. He worked as a legal staff for a government office but had stayed there over a short period of time only.

He decided to pursue arts and so entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He joined the Grand Prix Rome contest but his attempt went unsuccessful. This failure led him to transfer to Academie Julian either in 1888 or 1889. There, he befriended Maurice Denis and Edouard Vuillard, who would become his lifetime friends. In 1892, the trio joined a new post-impressionist group, Les Nabis, but the recognized leader was Paul Serusier. The group leader was believed to be an avid follower of Paul Gauguin’s art theories, which the group members probably practiced collectively.

Bonnard’s friends were fond of his multi-faceted personality that they called him “highly Nipponized Nabi”, referring to the Japanese art that apparently influenced him during the late 19th century. An example of his Nipponized work is the four-paneled Promenade des nourrices, fries des faicres of 1897. This lithograph is characterized by its decorative outlines, flat depth of field, distorted forms, and the seemingly animated figures.

In 1891, he was introduced to Toulouse Lautrec who was also a prominent figure of Post-Impressionism. Through Lautrec he was able to join the yearly exhibition of the Societe des Artistes Independants. It was during this period that his circle of artist-friends grew. He even met La Revue Blanche, who became his patron. Vuillard and Bonnard designed illustrations for Blanche during the 1890’s. And then, the Galerie Durand-Ruel accepted his work to be exhibited during the 1896 art show.


In 1900, Bonnard altered his style to follow the tradition developed by the early Impressionist painters. His natural eye for design and decoration has been modified to depict light and color more accurately, although he did not practice in en-plein-air and stayed inside his home studio instead. Bonnard chose color violet as his primary color alongside his other choices green and orange. He would then mix these colors with gray.

Bonnard’s passion for coloring made him one of the best colorists of his generation. His colors were bold, rich and luminous but this was not done based on his desire to reveal something, but of establishing a relationship between the uneven layers of shades and adjacent colors. This is where he would tell himself that “color was an end in itself”.

This coloring approach gave the definition for the word “intimism”. The 1900 marked a new beginning in his artistic style. His palette was known for its rich, thick and loose brushstrokes, and black outlines. Vuillard adopted the same style and together they developed an impressionist technique called intimism. The subject matter range from the domestic scenes to still-life objects. Therefore, Bonnard did more landscape paintings than portraits in his career.

In his landscapes, the images are colored brilliantly and the surrounding is well-lit. This would become a source of inspiration for the younger artists for they appreciated how sensual, freer and optimistic Bonnard’s works were, giving a breath of fresh air from the mystical and occult themes of the Symbolist movement. Included in his subject matter was Marthe, his wife, and their domestic pets. Marthe was often seated at a table writing a letter which was depicted in The Letter (1906), while their pets were often lounging on top of the table near the dishes.

Painting from memory made his 1900 works look primitive. For example, the surface of the table or how it was arranged in The Letter was not in perspective. The audience sees it as flat, vertical and shortened compared to the 3-D modeling and foreshortened perspective of the previous artistic movements. The supposed square-shaped items on the table are in irregular shape so as to make it appear flat, two-dimensional.

Another noticeably unique about Bonnard’s works is that there is no focal point. Almost everything in the painting is as significant as the other so the audience would not know where to pay close attention. Bonnard wanted his paintings to appear purely visual that is comparable to the real-word arrangement of things. In some cases, he applied a technique wherein he would leave the middle of the canvas empty of anything like a camera capturing a panorama, where the audience is forced to look at the sides of the photo instead of looking at the center.

Bonnard painted a small number of self-portraits. Those were supposed to record his puzzlements as he go through with life. He still continued painting from memory during the early 20th century, most of which were views of Paris and of his household. He took some photographs of his preferred subjects and then turn them into an oil painting on canvas at this studio. Few examples include Woman in Black Stockings, Indolence, and The Terrasse Family.

Mature Years

Bonnard was discreet about his dislike of modern art movements such as Futurism and Fauvism. He stayed away from those trends by living outside of Paris. The First World War did have an effect on his career. Art show organizers had stopped from holding such events so Bonnard exhibited on a few occasions only. However, the war did not exactly have an impact on his art.

In fact, his paintings during the said period were still warm, lighthearted, joyful and colorful. This could be taken as a highly contented personal life. In 1918, Bonnard became an honorary president to the Society of Young French Painters. There he met Count Balthazar Klossowski de Rola.

In 1926, he settled in Cote d’Azur. He had never gone back to Paris since then, though. Seven days before his death, he completed his last major painting, The Almond Tree in Blossom. Around the time, he was staying at La Route de Serra Capeou, Le Cannet of the French Riviera.

Ever though Bonnard retreated to the countryside, his popularity remained solid and his works were considered a sought-after. It was only after his death when his reputation had been shrouded by the quickly growing popularity of avant-garde groups such as Cubism and Futurism. In 1947, Christian Zervos wrote a review of Bonnard’s major contributions to the French art and he concluded it by saying that “In Bonnard’s work, Impressionism becomes insipid and falls into decline”.

Pierre Bonnard died in his home at Cote d’Azure on January 23, 1947.