Magazine article Insight on the News

Bonnard Sought `the First Sensation'; as Evidenced by an Exhibition at the Phillips Collection in Washington, Artist Pierre Bonnard Was a Master at Capturing the Marvel and Splendor of Everyday Scenes. (Nation: Art)

Magazine article Insight on the News

Bonnard Sought `the First Sensation'; as Evidenced by an Exhibition at the Phillips Collection in Washington, Artist Pierre Bonnard Was a Master at Capturing the Marvel and Splendor of Everyday Scenes. (Nation: Art)

Article excerpt

Pierre Bonnard's name isn't as well known as that of his contemporary, Pablo Picasso, though it should be. It isn't as well-known either as that of another great painter of his time, Henri Matisse, even though a generous Matisse acknowledged Bonnard's worth: "Bonnard is the greatest among us," he told the American art critic and collector Duncan Phillips in 1930.

It was an assessment with which Phillips could agree. Indeed, Phillips fell in love with Bonnard's Woman With Dog (1922) when he saw it at the Carnegie International Exhibition in Pittsburgh in 1925 and bought it right away. Through the years, his collection would come to include 17 oil paintings by the master, plus five of his drawings and nine prints.

Phillips' museum gave Bonnard his first one-man show in the United States and has exhibited his work many times since. Now, until Jan. 19, 2003, viewers can see more than 130 of Bonnard's works on splendid display at the Phillips Collection just two or so blocks from Washington's Dupont Circle. Entitled "Pierre Bonnard: Early and Late," the exhibition puts on view more than 60 of the artist's paintings, along with 70 works that include decorative screens, photographs, sculpture and drawings. Many of the works are from private collections and rarely seen publicly.

It is a marvelous show. Bonnard, who was born in 1867 and died in 1947, early on fell in love with vivid color and the power it could evoke in painting. He greatly admired those brightly colored Japanese prints of everyday life known as ukiyo-e that circulated widely in late 19th-century Europe.

A 1909 trip to the south of France was a revelation. Here in great quantities were the colors he loved: foliage, flowers, buildings and the people themselves.

Everything around him there also was bathed in light--bright, splendid, shimmering light. "It struck me like the Thousand and One Nights," he wrote his mother, "the sea, yellow walls, reflections as bright as lights."

In 1911, Bonnard purchased his first automobile, an 11CV Renault, which he used to drive down France's Route 7 from Paris to the Mediterranean. He drove slowly, in order to see everything closely. Rarely did he travel more than 30 miles in one day, friends said.

Under the influence of his passion for the light and color of the south, Bonnard rethought his art. He still loved color, but now felt his drawing inadequate to do the kind of work he wanted to do.

"I have gone back to school," he explained to his nephew Charles Terrasse. "I mistrust myself and all that I have been passionate about: this color which drives one wild. I sacrificed form to it, almost unconsciously. But it is true that form exists.... It is therefore drawing that I must study."

Bonnard had not been a weak painter before the trip south. Such works as his Self-Portrait (1889) and the Portrait of Ambroise Vollard (ca. 1906) show a very clever artist at work, as does his brightly colored, three-paneled screen of around 1889, Marabout [Stork] and Four Frogs.

His experience in the south of France deepened trends already visible in his art, as this exhibition amply proves. Above all, what was important to him in his painting was what he came to call "finding again the first sensation," that is, recovering that first overwhelming reaction to a landscape or a scene before it becomes too familiar and we become inured to it. …

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