The Museum’s current exhibition Posters of Paris: Toulouse-Lautrec and his Contemporaries features a number of posters by Pierre Bonnard (French, 1867-1947)—including the fantastic France-Champagne lithograph, a work that inspired the master Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec to make ground-breaking posters.
Did you know that the Museum’s Permanent Collection has two paintings by Bonnard?
The paintings are gorgeous, and can be found on the upper level in the Bradley Collection Galleries.
One of the two paintings, Girl in Straw Hat (Femme au Chapeau Rouge), has long been one of my personal favorite artworks. I suspect that Girl in Straw Hat was also one of Mrs. Bradley’s favorites, and there is good reason why.
Mrs. Harry L. Bradley (Milwaukee collector of an important collection of European and American painting, prints, watercolors, and sculpture from the late 19th century to the early 1970s that came as a generous gift to the Museum), even decided to put this painting on the cover of her 1968 collection catalogue. The publicity photo just below shows her standing in front of Girl in Straw Hat when it was on loan to a 1964 Bonnard exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in New York.
While I can’t speak directly for Mrs. Bradley, I personally like Pierre Bonnard because he is an artist that went his own way.
I find that artists that are hard to categorize are often the most interesting.
Young Bonnard trained as a lawyer to appease his father, but he wanted to become an artist. By the time he finished his law studies at 21, he was attending classes at the Académie Julian in Paris. There he met Paul Sérusier, who showed Bonnard a small painting called Bois d’Amour or The Talisman. Sérusier told him that the painting was done “as dictated by Gauguin”—the very same Gauguin that led the modern art movement at the end of the 19th century.
Bonnard, Sérusier, and a few other artists (including Edouard Vuillard) formed a short-lived group called the Nabis (Nabi mean prophet in Hebrew) to explore the possibilities offered by the new style proposed by Gauguin. One of the ways these artists did this was by blurring the line between painting and decoration; they added decorative elements such as patterns to their paintings and worked in the decorative arts such as tapestry.
The other Nabi artists called Bonnard “le Nabi très japonard” because he was fascinated by Japanese wood-block prints. These prints used large blocks of color in abstracted compositions with bold use of black ink. Here is one example by Toshusai Sharaku (Japanese, active 1794–95) and another by Ando Hiroshige (Japanese, 1797–1858).
This Japanese influence is evident in Bonnard’s own prints, such as the France-Champagne poster on view in the Museum’s Posters of Paris exhibition. (Shown at right.)
Bonnard was also very interested in photography, and used it to come up with interesting compositions. This summer the exhibition Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard at the Indianapolis Museum of Art explores the topic of that new creative process.
But by 1900, the Nabis artists had drifted apart. Bonnard was traveling throughout Europe, often with his friend Vuillard, while back in Paris, the Fauves and Cubists were busy setting new courses for 20th century art. But as Bonnard continued to work, he didn’t take up with either moment.
Pierre Bonnard remained an art figure that is hard to define or categorize.
Girl in Straw Hat (dated 1903) is a good example of this. The painting seems quite calm compared to what avant-garde artists were producing. Although there is some vibration between the red of the flowers on the hat and the greens in the coat, the purplish background and the warm yellows of the hat—colors reminiscent of the Fauves—the overall effect is nonetheless harmonious. It is not exactly jarring.
One of the best parts of the painting can only be seen in person. The paint is energetically applied, with brushstrokes you can see—you can almost imagine how Bonnard applied the paint. Some areas, such as the hat, are almost three-dimensional due to thick buildup of paint. The paint is also exceptionally shiny, which contrasts with the lightly covered areas where you can see the texture of the canvas.
Bonnard’s broken brushstrokes and lively colors capture a fleeting moment in time. In fact, Girl in a Straw Hat looks a lot like an Impressionist painting. But that assessment of the work makes no sense—why would an artist who had found inspiration in Gauguin, a Post-Impressionist, be working in an earlier Impressionistic style? By the date 1903, Impressionism was considered old-fashioned and out-of-date.
But remember, I posited earlier the Bonnard like to go his own way. He himself admitted that he discovered Impressionism late. He wrote, “[Impressionism] came as a new enthusiasm, a sense of revelation and liberation” (quoted in T. Hyman, Bonnard, London 1998, p. 65).
In particular, Bonnard admired the work of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, who had by the early 20th century become a mentor to him. Girl in a Straw Hat is clearly inspired by Renoir, who painted ladies in hats over and over. See examples here at Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Städtische Galerie, Frankfurt, Germany; State Hermitage Museum in Russia; Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal in Canada; the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia; and a painting sold by Christie’s in 2010. Other paintings of women in hats by Bonnard include Woman in A White Hat at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Jeune femme au chapeau bleu sold by Christie’s in 2010.
But despite his interest in and connections to Impressionism, Bonnard was definitely not an Impressionist. He felt that Impressionism’s goal to catch the fleeting moment was not a deep enough reason to paint; he wanted to combine the momentary with the emotional. Instead of painting landscapes on site, he painted interiors, often from memory.
Just look at the difference between nudes painted by Bonnard and Renoir. Bonnard shows his un-idealized ladies (usually his wife) in domestic interiors. Renoir shows his idealized women in the dappled sunlight of the out-of-doors.
In fact, Bonnard’s preference to paint private, quiet interior scenes with psychological tension was given its own name: Intimism. A great example of Bonnard’s Intimist approach is Mirror on the Wash Stand in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. Even the Museum’s seemingly straight-forward composition in Girl in a Straw Hat demonstrates Intimism. Although she stands in front of you, as if ready to converse, in reality her gaze looks past you because she seems lost in her own thoughts. She is giving us more than a fleeting moment, she is exhibiting psychological intrigue.
Do you find her gaze sticking in your mind?
Throughout the early 20th century, Bonnard continues to experiment with his art. He tried to figure out how to use all of the techniques and influences in his arsenal to produce the best reflection of the real and imaginary: the decorative patterning of the Nabis, the flattening of space found in Japanese woodblock prints, the broken brushstrokes of the Impressionist, and the vibrant color used by Gauguin and the Fauves to evoke mood.
In the last phase of his career, from the 1930s until he died in 1947, Bonnard painted at Le Cannet in Southern France where he had purchased a house. The over three hundred works that he created there are imbued with the seductive light and color of Southern France. During this period, the culmination of his amazing career, he abstracted the natural world into colors and forms, creating canvases are to be experienced rather than “read.” The Milwaukee Art Museum has one of the largest and most important works from this period, View from the Artist’s Studio, Le Cannet, pictured above.
So, this summer in Milwaukee, take advantage of the opportunity to see works by this complex and fascinating artist whose complete career—early and late, prints and paintings—is on view at the Museum. Posters of Paris will be on view until September 9, but these masterworks from Milwaukee’s Permanent Collection will continue to be on view for your enjoyment.
Catherine Sawinski is the Assistant Curator of Earlier European Art. When not handling the day-to-day running of the European art department and the Museum’s Fine Arts Society, she researches the collection of Ancient and European artwork before 1900.