French painter born at Fontenay-aux-Roses in 1867; died at Le Cannet, 1947. The charming name of this Parisian suburb, conjuring up as it does visions of flowers and colourful retreats, was apt for the birthplace of a great painter whose art is all in delicate nuances, fine shades of feeling. About 1891 Bonnard and his friends, who called themselves the Nabis, and whom the critics named the Symbolists or the Revue Blanche painters, exhibited their work for the first time at the Salon des Indépendants and in the small gallery of Le Barc de Boutteville. Maurice Denis was only twentythree, Vuillard, Roussel and Bonnard were almost twenty-five, and Lautrec was three years their senior. Tall, thin, bony and withdrawn, Bonnard used to baffle people at first. He seemed to hold himself aloof from everyone and be perpetually on the defensive, even to a point of actual mistrust. Still uncertain of himself, he was first attracted by the applied arts: furniture, fans, screens, ceramics, theatre décors. In 1891 a coloured poster ( France-Champagne) was the first to display in Paris the initials and energy of this painter, who readily accepted any kind of work that came his way. There was already a mixture of playfulness, humour and tenderness in his pictures, his first lithographs, and his sculptures. With boldness and precision, yet with the eyes of a Romantic, he explored the unknown around him, transforming everything he looked at: gardens and flower-filled rooms, the sea, the breakfast table, the boulevards, women, children, dogs. Of an extremely retiring nature, he went to live at Le Cannet, a village above Cannes, in a little villa with bare, white wooden furniture. This tiny studio, like the place he bought at Vernon in the Eure, and called 'The Trailer', testified to his profound disinterest in material comfort. He never showed his pictures in a frame to enhance their value. Water-colours, sketches, all done on any piece of paper that happened to come to hand, were carelessly tied up with string, or lay about in the dust of his studio. Humble in his methods but uncompromising in character, incapable of any concession to vanity or to money, preserving to the last his original shyness and diffidence, his ardour and his animal vitality, he always started from his own version of truth, rebelling against fashions and theories. Superficially there might be a certain similarity between some of his landscapes and still lifes, and certain creations of the great Impressionists (particularly Claude Monet), arising out of the way he deliberately forgot realities when he began to paint. But Bonnard's method of procedure was actually quite different. Suffering, like his friends Vuillard and Roussel, from the inadequacies of a technique which they were obliged to reinvent, working simultaneously on a number of different pictures, he was eternally making changes in them, sometimes for years, before he was satisfied. He would even go to retouch his canvases in the museums, much to the astonishment of the guards.
It was natural that, between the two wars, when reaction against Impressionism was so strong, Bonnard should be reproached for his lack of construction and the sketchiness of his drawing. His critics did not realize that the strength and freedom of his artistic response allowed him to carry off even the most complicated of problems. He was not a theoretician, and it was by the most contradictory -- often the most paradoxical -- routes that this modest explorer succeeded in fulfilling the missions he set himself. The constant transposition of line as well as of colour, the gift of forgetting the local tone of objects as well as the usual way of treating them, the art of considering the picture a closed universe with its own private needs -- that is what is so deeply moving and charming in these miracles of invention, where fantasy becomes more true than reality. The originality and courage of this painter, who was so frail and cautious in appearance, is shown by the sense of mystery he extracts from everyday scenes. Bonnard always reminds one of a sleeper startled out of his sleep, who no longer knows either the name or the weight of things, nor even the proportions of his own room. In Bonnard, however, this is never the effect of systematic or deliberate confusion. Delivered from the tyrannies of perspective and lighting, Nature becomes fairylike. Where we think we should encounter a solid, there is only transparency; where we expect shade, there is only light: every assumption is foiled by a great creative vision and an intuition which reconstructs the universe. With the marvellous simplicity of a poet, he amuses himself, and wonders, and is moved by everything and nothing. Referring to one of his Bouquets, he confided to a critic who was interviewing him: 'The presence of the object, the motif, is disturbing to a painter. An idea being the starting-point of a picture, there is danger that he will allow himself to be influenced by the immediate, direct view of its details, if the object is there while he works. Through the sway his original idea holds over him, the painter attains the universal. If this idea fades, there remains only the motif, the object, which overcomes the painter. From that moment he is no longer painting his own picture.' He also said: 'Defects are what give life to a picture'.
There is no abrupt break, no inconsistency in his work, from the first small panels inspired by Paris and its suburbs -- washerwomen, children, errand boys and dogs, painted on pasteboard with a cold palette of velvety black and Watteaulike greys and whites -- to the compositions of the latter part of his life: luminous bathers, fabulous animals and people, still lifes saturated in colour, landscapes in which skies are of an opaque black, shadows of translucent gold, and rose-coloured meadows. Sometimes we see a glossy interior, shimmering with colour, contrasting its clarity and transparency with the resistant opaqueness of a landscape, an inert block framed by a window. There, nude bodies appear so integrated with the room that it is difficult to say whether they colour the surrounding space or take their existence from it. The pearly flesh of a thigh seems to be composed of the same substance as the furniture against which it stands out miraculously; but at the same time the back of this bathing woman, like an idol, seems part of the golden atmosphere of the room. Certain torsos, the focal point of so many reflections, seem to be marked with azure scars and pink stigmata. Some fruit baskets carry miraculous shadows. No one has ever made such a poetic fairy tale out of the most ordinary objects of our daily lives. At seventy-five, as at twenty, before woman -- such a little girl in spite of the fullness of her body! -- he shows the same trembling, the same love for that most mysterious of fruits, that incomprehensible and complementary being; and he feels the same sense of wonder before a dog, a child, or the sky.
Whether it be a picture, a print, a poster, an illustration, a statuette -- and all these activities were complementary, -- Bonnard was never hampered by scene or action. He never lapsed into artificiality, sham antiquity or conventionalism if he tried to create a Greek atmosphere, and he avoided what might become outdated when he depicted the present. For he knew that the same events keep on repeating themselves under changing skies, that life will always have the same charm and the same limitations, that desire always follows the same course. No matter what he undertook, he questioned everything, reinvented the theme as well as the means of executing it, and right to the end of his life he devoted his seriousness and his experience to exploiting the most marvellous of his gifts -- his youthfulness.
Bonnard's art inaugurated the period of Modern Painting. It contains intimations of Fauvism, in that it enables visual sensations to express themselves with a hitherto undreamedof intensity. Perhaps Bonnard was the true creator of that romantic cult of pure colour, which, while provoking the inevitable reprisals from embattled classicism, led painting towards a fuller emancipation from the tyranny of the object.