Pierre Bonnard was a French painter and illustrator famed for his colorful and decorative creations. As a founding member of the “Les Nabis” artists’ group, Bonnard also led the shift from Impressionism to Modernism in France.
This brief introduction presents some of the most famous Pierre Bonnard paintings and explores the artist’s fascinating personal life.
Pierre Bonnard, born October 3, 1867, grew up in Fontenay-aux-Roses in Hauts-de-Seine in Northern France. His father worked as a senior official in the French Ministry of War, providing the family with a comfortable income.
As one of three children, Bonnard attended the Lycée Louis-le-Grand and Lycée Charlemagne. During his education, he showed an early aptitude for painting and drawing. Bonnard often painted his parents’ extensive country gardens in their new home at Le Grand Lemps (a small commune in southeastern France).
As well as art, Bonnard also loved literature. He achieved a Baccalaureate in Classics and later earned a license in law. By 1888 (aged 21), Bonnard began practicing law.
While working as a lawyer, Bonnard also started art classes at the prestigious Académie Julian in Paris. He met the painters (and future life-long friends) Paul Sérusier, Paul Ranson, and Maurice Denis during this time.
Bonnard continued his artistic studies at the École des Beaux-Arts, where he met Ker Xavier Roussel and Édouard Vuillard.
Bonnard and his friends formed the informal artist’s group Les Nabis.
The group focused on surface color and decoration as a precursor to Post-Impressionism art. As such, they played an essential role in the transition from Impressionism to modern abstract art and Symbolism.
From 1888 to 1900, Pierre Bonnard and the Les Nabis artists revolutionized French art. Taking inspiration from Paul Cézanne and Paul Gauguin, they produced some of the most beautiful and colorful creations in French art.
While many Les Nabis also worked with philosophical and religious themes, Pierre Bonnard's paintings remained secular and straightforward. His cheerful compositions often depicted pets such as cats and dogs, notably in Le Chat Blanc (1894), Woman with a Dog (1891), and The Red Checkered Tablecloth.
With Le Chat Blanc, this Pierre Bonnard cat exemplified his playful, expressive style. Indeed, the painter Aurelien Lugné-Poe described Bonnard as the “humorist” among their group. Poe spoke of Bonnard’s “nonchalant gaiety” expressed through his colorful creations.
Pierre Bonnard painted quickly and expressively. He created areas of color with tiny, quick brush marks, focusing on intimate domestic scenes filled with life. He often drew his subjects first, making notes on colors and tones. Then, Bonnard finished compositions in his studio, working on multiple canvases simultaneously.
In 1893, Bonnard saw a major exhibition of Japanese art in Paris. Including artworks by Hiroshige and Utamaro (based at the Durand-Ruel Gallery), it inspired Bonnard.
These Japanese artists’ use of multiple perspectives, bold geometric patterns, and bright colors changed Bonnard’s art forever. From this point onwards, his friends nicknamed him “Le Nabi le très Japonard”.
After this date, Bonnard increasingly focused on artworks featuring decorative fabrics, fans, and interior furnishings.
Pierre Bonnard used a massive variety of bright, colorful tones. These colors included bright yellows, crimson reds, delicate pinks, and pastel shades.
He lived with Marthe de Méligny from 1893 onwards, who appeared in many of his famous nude paintings. These include erotically charged yet emotionally intimate images such as Siesta (1899) and Nude Against Daylight (1908).
By 1894, Bonnard started including urban scenes and animals in his artworks. While these paintings often featured people, Bonnard usually obscured their faces. Images such as Races at Longchamp (1894) exemplify these mid-career creations.
The following year, Bonnard enjoyed his first individual exhibition. Held at the prestigious Durand-Ruel Gallery (the same place he discovered Japanese art), it was a remarkable success. In 1896, Bonnard also participated in a group show of Les Nabis artists at the Paris Ambroise Vollard Gallery. Another Les Nabis exhibition followed in 1899.
Pierre Bonnard created over 240 artworks during his long and prolific career.
This early twentieth century was a massively exciting time in French art. Multiple art movements appeared, including Neo-Impressionism and Cubism. Bonnard also kept refining his artistic style, exploring various subjects and techniques.
In 1900, Bonnard exhibited at the Paris Salon. He displayed nine other artworks at the Salon des Independents in 1901.
Some of the most renowned Pierre Bonnard paintings appeared after 1905, however. These included a series of famous nude paintings, such as Woman in front of a Mirror (1908) and Reclining Nude (1909).
In 1914, World War I broke out. Bonnard wasn’t involved in the fighting and continued focusing on his nude art portraits and interior scenes.
By this point, Bonnard enjoyed a prestigious reputation in the French art world. In 1918 (when World War One finished), the Association of Young French Artists elected Bonnard as an honorary president. Bonnard’s fellow nominee was Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
Throughout his career, Bonnard also created book illustrations, advertisements, and lithographs. His posters for France-Champagne were particularly well-known.
Despite this, Bonnard’s colorful and optimistic oil on canvas paintings remains his best-known works.
In 1939, World War Two forced Bonnard to leave Paris. He moved to the South of France, where he stayed under German occupation. Bonnard lived a quiet life and completed his last painting, The Almond Tree in Blossom, in 1947.
Bonnard died a week later (on 23 January 1947) at his country home near Le Cannet on the French Riviera.
In 1948, The Museum of Modern Art (based in New York City) hosted a retrospective of Pierre Bonnard's paintings. Initially intended for the artist’s eightieth birthday, the exhibition displayed some of his most celebrated works.
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