Pierre Bonnard at the Villa le Bosquet

Article excerpt

MORE years ago than I wish to reveal I saw my first paintings by Pierre Bonnard. It surprised me. In a side room in the late Helen Lessore's gallery above Bond Street, I saw a huge canvas of a woman lying full length in her bath. Like some great golden seal, sunlight streamed over her body, its sparkle only broken by pearly half-shadows before tumbling into the water which touched her like a gentle caress. It was painted in the house Bonnard bought in 1926 at Le Bosquet, a village above Cannes on the Cote d'Azur. All the paintings and drawings he did there are the subject of the exhibition at the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank, London until August 29th.

The woman in the bath is Marthe, his wife and frequent though reluctant model. There are paintings of `Marthe in the Dining Room', `Marthe at Breakfast', Marthe in `The Red Dress' and lots of Marthe in the bathroom. Extremely shy and withdrawn she was obsessed with the ritual of bathing and anointing herself which took many hours each day. Various stages of her toilette became the source of a whole series of paintings. They simply record the event with none of the sensual, voyeuristic overtones to be found in Degas' or Renoir's long series of nudes. Marthe's passion for cleanliness was unusual. Living in Paris some forty years later I had the impression that bathing did not figure high on the list of French priorities.

About 1928 Edouard Vuillard, Bonnard's life-long friend, painted him standing in profile, thin and neat in jacket and trousers, inspecting a large landscape painting pinned to the wall. He is in the undistinguished modern room with bare walls in which he chose to paint. Looking at the portrait and the paintings of rooms in the villa at Le Bosquet so recognisable to us as similar to our own, it is hard to credit that Bonnard belonged to a completely different era. He was born in 1867. Professor Lawrence Gowing reminds us: `Bonnard was singular among the painters of the Belle Epoch in that he was perfectly aware while it was in progress that the beauty of the epoch was unprecedented.' The son of an official in the War Ministry he was destined for the law. But even before he passed his examinations he had enrolled in the Academie Julien.

At the Academie he became friends with Paul Serusier, Maurice Denis, Felix Vallaton and Vuillard. Goaded by Gauguin and led by Serusier they formed, in 1888, a short-lived movement -- the Nabis, recently the subject of a hugely popular exhibition in Paris. They painted in flat pure colours and embraced a quasi-religious symbolism. They were anti-impressionism. In 1889 Bonnard received a commission for a poster. `France Champagne' was seen all over Paris. It attracted the attention of Toulouse-Lautrec and the major critics of the day -- Thadie Natanson, owner of La Revue Blanche, Gustave Geffroy and Claude Roger Marx. Bonnard became part of the avant-garde Natanson coterie, spending many weekends at their hospitable country house where Renoir, Vuillard, Vallaton, Lautrec, the composer Debussy, and the poet, Stephane Mallarme, paid court to Misia, their kind and fascinating hostess. All the artists painted her over and over again.

In 1896 the dealer, Durand-Ruel, gave Bonnard his first one-man exhibition. Camille Pissaro saw it and was horrified. `Yet another Symbolist has perpetrated a fiasco', he wrote to his son Lucien. Soon afterwards Bonnard changed his painting style. Robert Rosenblum, Professor of Fine Arts at New York University in his unlikely but wonderfully appealing and erudite book The Dog in Art from Rococo to Post Modernism, describes an 1893 lithograph thus: 'In the 1890s Pierre Bonnard created the supplest variations of a sweetly untroubled, middle-class Paris. In both his indoor and outdoor vignettes we can almost savour Proustian memories of the quiet comforting rhythms of French domesticity at its most refined, whether in the nursery, the dining room, or the market street. …