Pierre Bonnard (3 October 1867 – Le Cannet, 23 January 1947) was a French painter and printmaker, as well as a founding member of the Post-Impressionist group of avant-garde painters Les Nabis. He preferred to work from memory, using drawings as a reference, and his paintings are often characterized by a dreamlike quality. The intimate domestic scenes, for which he is perhaps best known, often include his wife Marthe de Meligny.
Bonnard has been described as the most thoroughly idiosyncratic of all the great twentieth-century painters” and the unusual vantage points of his compositions rely less on traditional modes of pictorial structure than voluptuous color, poetic allusions and visual wit. Identified as a late practitioner of Impressionism in the early 20th century, Bonnard has since been recognized for his unique use of color and his complex imagery. “It’s not just the colors that radiate in a Bonnard“, writes Roberta Smith, “there’s also the heat of mixed emotions, rubbed into smoothness, shrouded in chromatic veils and intensified by unexpected spatial conundrums and by elusive, uneasy figures.”
In 1891 he met Toulouse-Lautrec and began showing his work at the annual exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants. In the same year Bonnard also began an association with La Revue Blanche, for which he and Édouard Vuillard designed frontispieces. His first show was at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in 1896.
In his 20s Bonnard was a part of Les Nabis, a group of young artists committed to creating work of symbolic and spiritual nature. In addition to his paintings, he also became known for his posters and book illustrations, as well as for his prints and theater set designs. 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 brush marks 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, street scenes, and many still lifes, which usually depicted 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. “I have all my subjects to hand“, he said, “I go back and look at them. I take notes. Then I go home. And before I start painting I reflect, I dream.”
He worked on numerous canvases simultaneously, which he tacked onto the walls of his small studio. In this way he could more freely determine the shape of a painting; “It would bother me if my canvases were stretched onto a frame. I never know in advance what dimensions I am going to choose.”