This post promises to be specifically difficult – not only because it will be long and tedious (every other one in this blog is like that), but also because of a few specific features, or qualities of Bonnard’s art. One of them is immediately visible in the collage above: these are two strikingly different versions of the same (self-)portrait (and many more versions of this work that could be found in the internet).
Bonnard has been considered a superb master of subtle colors and hues, and already his contemporains noted how different his paintings look under different light. Now we have the web, with its power to multiple and disseminate the works of art – but also distort them by grossly inaccurate representations of colors.
Many other artists suffer from this issues too, of course, but in my opinion the works by Bonnard are in the top league of ‘victims’. However, they may also be considered among the beneficiaries: another characteristic qualities of his paintings is their very special translucency, as if the light comes from behind, and this effect can, of course, be greatly supported by the way how modern display work. A blessing in disguise.
As I said, I made the above juxtaposition out of two versions, and one can easily find many more, ranging from deeply purplish to brightly canary hues. The colorful spectrum doesn’t leave much chances to understand what is the ‘real’ color palette of the work. And in this case it’s not that easy to verify it by looking at the original painting, since it’s in a private collection and is rarely shown to the public.
But even in the case of a relatively accessible works the judgement is not so easy to make. Here is, for instance, one of the Bonnard’s paiting currently on display in the Moscow’s Pushkin Art Museum (the picture is mine):
What’s is the color palette of the painting, then? Subject to possible color distortion by a camera, I would say that the overall tone is ‘greenish’ (and it also corresponds to my subjective perception).
But there are many descriptions that define this painting as ‘bluish’ or ‘pinkish’, or ‘body flesh’, each presenting their own ‘proofs’:
In other words, expect a lot vagueness and assumptions ahead.
Another issue is the number. When I start compiling the materials for this posting, I had 103 works by Bonnard in my collection (not necessarily different paintings, though, sometimes these were different color versions (see above) or other supporting pictures. This was already a larger number then I had for such giants as the stories about Picasso or Dali. When I finished, the counter was on 226.
As always, I don’t want to write these postings in a format of carpet (art) bombing, yet it’s also not fair, and not right to hide these large art collections either. I believe that Bonnard made a very special contribution to the business of ‘mirrors in art’, not only by the large number of his works, but also a very interesting and original elaboration of the matters, and so he deserves a larger, picture saturated posting (or a few) about his mirror-works.
In some way, the self-portrait that was shown above can be seen as a forerunner of many important themes of Bonnard’s art: nudity, and self-referentiality (depictions of the two of his own works with nude models can be found in the background), and yes, the mirror (this work was clearly painted from the reflection in a mirror).
Pierre Bonnard is 22 years old here; here is how looked in real life at this time:
This absent-minded gaze, seemingly staring into nowhere (but in reality always staring at the same place, inside himself) will become a recognizable sign of his numerous self-portraits, but also the founding principle of his art. Bonnard hardly every made his paintings from life or from real models. He would make pencil sketches (and later also photographs), but then the works themselves were almost always created from memory. As he wrote in this diary, “The important thing is to remember what impressed you most and to put it on canvas as fast as possible.”
I will write here only a very short version of his biography (a more detailed account can be found here).
Pierre Bonnard was born in 1867, in what was then a suburb of Paris (by now it is a part of the city, of course), on a family of a senior official from the French Ministry of Defence (then called Ministère des Armées). His early years somewhat resemble those of Degas (minus an aristocratic origin) – a wealthy family, lavish childhood, good education (he was fond of еру classical languages and literature). His good career and comfortable, luxurious life was a guarantee from the very start. And yet the boy got in the arts, he began to paint and took some lessons in the private Académie Julian, and then enrolled into the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts.
Similar to Degas, Bonnard’s father was fiercely against such a career choice, and instead sent Pierre to the Law School in Sorbonne. Apparently he even graduated from this school and shortly worked as a lawyer (which already makes his life trajectory different from the Degas’ one who never got any formal education).
I write ‘apparently’ also because it is still not fully clear if this has happened or not. The first biography of Bonnard was written by his sister, when he became famous, and in many ways tries to ‘beautify’ many aspects of his life. Later, less biased research found no evidence that Bonnard had an official certificate that would allow him to practice. Not that I particularly care but it shows, once again, that one shouldn’t really trust any source, and instead double-check everything.
The situation with his very first steps in art is also not fully clear. Some art historians write that Bonnard met a group of young artists – Maurice Denis, Édouard Vuillard, Félix Vallotton and few others – already during his studies in this art school, and together they founded a new art group called Les Nabis (The Prophet, from Hebrew). Others argue that Bonnard made his works on his own, and even had achieved a certain commercial success (for instance, one of his earlier posters promoting champaign got an award, and was spotted by Toulouse-Lautrec who then introduced Bonnard to all these painters). Again, no certainty and no particular trust to all the sources; but no time to go and check and research everything myself either, so I had to limit myself by big brushstrokes painting the notorious ‘big picture’.
Below is the photo of Vuillard, Ker-Xavier Roussel (another painter from this group), and Bonnard himself:
The background is made from the self-portrait by Gauguin, who was their idol, not only in art, but in the lifestyle, too, and in worldview and ideology.
Paul Cézanne was another here for these painters, and they express their worshiping attitude in this famous group portraitcalled Homage to Cézanne, by Maurice Denis (1900). Bonnard is standing to the right, with a pipe (and here you can read about others painters depicted in this work):
Today most of these painters are considered to be famous masters, but by then all of them were rather strange and marginal figures, marginal not only in relation to the official mainstream academism, but even to all sorts of innovative trends of the time, such as impressionism or pointillism.
later this movement was collectively labelled ‘post-impressionism’, yet (as with any other -ism), the term itself does not make the picture clear. In an ideal world it would worth to take a pause here and write a word or two about each of them (and on their ‘art-mirrors’, too), and then about general art context of the time. But this would be instantly a little book, not a simple blog posting 😦
In a nutshell, these guys fought not only against the academic art (that in France at that moment was probably best represented by William Bouguereau), but already against the first impressionists, of different kind. However different were these schools, for the Nabists they were both ‘too realistic’, ‘too objective’. They desired to escape this ‘objectivity’ in search of ‘subjective’, whatever form it would take: symbolic, spiritual, or ‘exotic’.
For example, one of their favorite escape routes became ‘Japonism’, both because of its otherworldly (for the Westerners) aesthetics and a set of very unusual techniques (for example, very different way to construct perspectives, its elevated vertical compositions, or highly stylised representations.) Many artists went though this affection (infection?) at that time (van Gogh could be a good example), and too did Bonnard. He was often called ‘the most Japanese Nabist of all’.
Another common craze was a rejection of a ‘line’ in favour of ‘color’, and a switch from a pen or pencil to ‘color spot’ or ‘color surface’. But these are too general a description, and it is always better to show some specific works.
Here, for instance, the poster I mentioned earlier, the one that got an award, and attracted some first attention to the young artist. Critics noted not only its original style, but also the shift of the focus from product functionality to ‘experience’, as we would call it today.
But even today we would call this a work of a graphic designer, not ‘real artist’, real painter. Bonnard had to demonstrate his ability to make ‘real paintings’ – and yet his first paintings looked more like art posters. Here are a few examples from this earlier series Women in the Garden, made out or large, a meter plus high panels.
Many of the Bonnard’s earlier works made in this manner, blindly copying the ‘Japanese style’. These could be portraits, or street scenes, or a bit frowning cat, the forerunner of Grumpy who lately flooded the entire Internet.
But Bonnard used similar tricks in not so vertical works, too, for example in the deliberately flat, nearly perspective-less Dusk, or A round of croquet (1892)
or in his Two Poodles (1891):
Even when Bonnard moved from poster-like works to more real pairings, they still resembled a set of color patches – that was making him and his compatriots very pleased, apparently:
Woman at a fence (1895)
Here is another ‘set of color spots’, in many ways pivotal for my story:
Le jeune fille aux bas noirs (1893)
This a very small, about A4 size, panel known as ‘Girl in Black Stockings apparently depicts one of the first models of Bonnard.
Like many other artists, Pierre Bonnard began to paint urban scenes and still lifes first; like many, he eventually start painting the ‘models’, and not just those provided by the art school for all students in the classes, but ‘his own’ ones .
In 1893 Bonnard met a girl who called herself Marthe de Méligny in 1893; he was 26 years old, she said she was ’16’. Her name alluded to the aristocratic origin, although the girl’s stories about her family were vague.
Bonnard convinced the woman to pose for him, for a fee – she has agreed, but (according to an urban legend of a sort) after the very first sitting turned into the painter’s mistress.
This picture was taken two years later, in 1985, but it gives some idea how Marthe looked at that time (both her and Bonnard loved cats, and we will see plenty of them in his paintings).
This part of the story resembles not Degas, but Manet, ‘only even worse’. As it turned to be, the girl’s name was not ‘Marthe de Méligny’, but ‘Maria Boursin’. And she was not 16, but 24 years old, and she didn’t any particular education as stated first. She worked as a seamstress, and her father worked as a carpenter in one of the Parisian suburbs.
Apparently all these things were not a biggy for Bonnard himself, but they made his family extremely unhappy. The misalliance was completely unacceptable for them, and Marthe-Maria was not even introduced by Bonnard family ( I am sure if his parents ever met her). At the same time, he wouldn’t meet with her family, either. Instead, they rented a room aka studio in the center of Paris and lived there in a semi-secret way.
Today we would consider such cohabitation a but schizophrenic (and it was such), but back then this was an accepted, in fact fairly typical way of handling such circumstances. Bonnard could have even liked it arranged in this manner, being a deep introvert, on a border with sociopathy. And from what I know Marthe-Maria fully fitted this lifestyle.
Schizo or not, but they seemingly lived together as two living pigeons; Bonnard kept making his paintings (including many works with Martha), and Martha – Martha did not do anything in particular, she just lived with him, posing for more and more explicit pictures.
I wrote “explicit”, but this does not mean merely nudity or particular erotic content. There are nude females in his painting, a plenty, but it’s surprisingly that critics had to invent a new word to describe Bonnard’s works, ‘intimism’ (and so the title of this posting). What is explicit here is a display of true inner life of a young family, very real and this very trustworthy.
I don’t think there was much ‘sitting’ here, in a strict sense. Very likely, this is how they lived, how Martha was dressing, undressing, washing herself, or laying on a bed. Bonnard was simply capturing these moments, and transferring them to canvas.
Indolent Woman (1899)
The dates of the last two paintings show that they were created already after 6-7 years after they started to live together. I don’t know if something had radically changed in 1895 when Bonnard’s father died. Pierre likely inherited some sort of wealth, but socially they would be still pariahs, and Martha was not introduced to his family until many years later.
Martha’s relationship with Bonnard’s colleagues also didn’t go very well. They found her mediocre, unable to maintain a minimally interesting conversation, and she didn’t demonstrate any particular interest to their craft either.
Now, the mirrors. Finally!
Here is the one that I consider his earliest one (at least I didn’t find any other ‘mirror work’ earlier than 1985, the year when this portrait was made):
Misia Godebska Writing (1895)
Interestingly, but the first Bonnard’s mirror was depicted not with Martha, but with another woman, the one who also played a very important role in his life.
Here I have to make a tangent, and tell the story of her life, quite remarkable. But before I forgot, I need to mention that in this particular work the mirror does not play any serious role, it is there merely as a part of interior. Surely it reflects the head of Misia (or Mizia, as she as called by some):
but the woman (who, to make yet another tangent, is a look-alike of Blade Runner’s Rachel)
… is not really looking at this mirror. But a few words about Misia Godebska:
who by the time she met Pierre Bonnard in Paris was already called Misia Natanson, being the wife of a Polish-Jewish banker Thadée Natanson. This is their family portrait, made about 1895 by Edouard Vuillard (there is an interesting mirror in this photo, with a frame mimicking the wall-paper):
Mysia’s life trajectory is often compared to a comet flying through the Earth’s sky, so bright (and reckless, I should add) it was. Funny enough, but she was born in Russia, in Tsarskoye Selo, near St. Petersburg (the name literally means Tsar’s Village and by then it was indeed a residence of the Russian Tsars, or Emperors, to be precise). But she literally spent only a few first days of her life in Russia, and the story behind it is pretty sad.
Her father was a well-known Polish sculptor, who was invited to teach in the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. He lived there without his family, though, as he preferred to leave his wife in Warsaw. At some point his wife, who was aware of her husband’s certain weakness for women, decided to pay a visit to his new home in Russia. To only discover Cyprian Ksaverevich Godebsky in the arms of his mistress. It could be merely melodramatic, but his wife was heavily pregnant, and died while giving birth to their daughter, Misia.
The girl was sent back to Poland but soon found her new home in Brussels, where her mother’s relatives lived. Apparently it was an incredibly musical family, whose friends included, among others, Franz Liszt, one of the most famous composers and pianists of that time. If to believe the family legends, Misia learned how to play piano before she was able to speak, and was destined to become a famous piano player.
This could well have happened, if her father wouldn’t take her to Paris, where he lived with his next mistress. The girl was sent to a boarding school where she spent ‘the most miserable years’ of her life, as she would be recalling it later. When she was fifteen year old, she escaped this school and went – alone! – to London. This would be a pretty brave move even today, and next to impossible, and very dangerous, back then. According to some sources she borrowed some money from her uncle, while others say she run together with him. In any case, soon she run out of London too, moving to Paris when she started to earn her own money teaching piano lessons.
At some point her family found her, and she was brought back to the family’s hearth. Or rather, she was helped to establish her own hearth, through a marriage, in 1993, with her cousin Thadée Natanson, young but a very successful banker who lived in Paris.
From this moment on her life will be always connected to art, in one way or another. Natanson was a known patron of art, and a sponsor of one of the most influential publications in this field, La Revue blanche.
Misia was familiar with many major artists of that time, both from academic and avant-garde circle. She was also frequently sitting for various painters, and we now have as many portraits of her as photographs. Below is the one by Renoir:
This is ‘another Misia’, by Félix Vallotton (in 1898), that also happens to be with a mirror:
And the next photograph shows Misia in the studio of Toulouse-Lautrec, who made a few dozens of her paintings. Many of them, when receiving as a gift, she thoughtlessly threw away. Or may be not so thoughtlessly, as many of them were actually too explicit.
Bonnard collaborated with La Revue blanche, and was a frequent guest at the Misia’s salons. He also painted many of her portraits, and few with mirrors, including this one, with the ‘absent mirror’. Misia is depicted here while looking at the mirror, yet we don’t see the mirror surface itself. Not the most original trick by that time, but still interesting.
Thadée Natanson and Misia (1906)
Previous portrait is made in the house of Misia Natanson, but the next two are from the house of Misia Edwards. From 1903 onwards she almost openly lived with a newspaper magnate Alfred Edwards and in 1905 married him. She is now portrayed in even more luxurious interiors (that also include the most fashionable mirrors of that time, the three-piece mirrors mounted on a dressing table.
In Russian such triple mirrors are often called tryumo (трюмо), which is not very accurate. The French trumeau originally meant a wall space between the windows, and later was also used to call large mirrors places in such spaces. When we went to the Couven Museum in Achen last year, we saw a wide variety of such trumeau there (see Mirrors of the Couven Museum).
The one below is perhaps the most pompous portrait of Misia painted by Bonnard. We’ve seen last year, in Madrid’s Museum of Thyssen-Bornemisza; there might be a mirror here too (in the upper left corner), but I am not completely sure.
Misia Godebska (1908)
I suspect that Misia was also sitting for less official and much more intimate portraits, too. I can’t claim with any certainty yet, but I found a large series of portraits of the women whose hairdo look suspiciously similar to the one of Misia.
Here is, for example, a Scantily clad woman in front of a mirror, and judging by the famous hairstyle of Rachel the Electronic Sheep, we could assume that this is also Misia Godebska-Natanson:
A demi déshabillée, devant la glace (1905)
We also see there a full-blown use of the mirror (very likely the same one that was depicted ten years ago.) Again, this is not perhaps the most original composition with a mirror, but we already can spot a uniquely Bonnard’s atmosphere, intimate and tranquil.
Another work from the same series, this time the woman is completely naked:
Nu assis se refétant dans un miroir (1905)
And yet another version, painted a year later:
Femme à sa toilette (1906)
It looks as if Bonnard was making a series of paintings that could be together called ‘A Woman Undressing’ (or A Woman Dressing, depending on how one orders them). Here is the work that could start the series:
Lady at the Mirror (1905)
This previous work resemble another portrait that Bonnard painted almost ten years earlier, in 1896:
Before the Looking-Glass (1896)
Was it Martha who was a model for this work? Or another woman? And again, in terms of composition Bonnard used the schemes employed centuries before him, but his treatment of a psychological moment is very special:
He also used some interesting tricks to depict the mirror itself, representing it as a compilation of multiple colourful spots, and of not exactly very obvious colors.
There are also a couple of earlier works by Bonnard where we can ‘assume’ mirrors, such as this Woman in Black Stockings (c.1900)
Woman in Black Stockings (1900)
As we know from the works of other artists (for instance, Degas) there should be a mirror on this dressing table. Bonnard didn’t make any special efforts to depict it clearly, and it remains there as a possibility.
Very similar hint to a mirror can be seen on another work, Nude with black stockingsundressing (1900). Or may be I just have copies of a very poor quality that do not allow to clearly see the signs of the mirrors on these paintings.
I consider the next painting not only very original, but in many ways a pivotal work for Bonnard, at least for his ‘art-mirrors’ line of art. It was painted in 1900 when he was 33 years old. He called it ‘Man and Woman’, but it is better known as ‘Self-Portrait in a Mirror with a Nude’
Man and Woman (Portrait in Mirror) (1900)
It is a very striking, daring work, and with multiple allusions (for example, one immediate association is van Eyck’s Adam and Eve):
Did Bonnard have in mind these ‘Big Themes’ when working on this piece? Or simply created yes another mundane scene of their life with Martha?
Whatever was the plan, the output happened to be an amazingly honest, yet delicate work. It is also a very interesting way of depicting a mirror: everything what we see on this painting is in fact a surface of a large mirror (we see its frame along the left border of the painting).
We know that it is a mirror reflection because later Bonnard will be using this trick many times, and he will be always referring to such works as ‘Mirror Portraits’. But in case of this very first work it’s not that obvious. For example, there is an earlier, smaller version of this paiting where Bonnard didn’t show a screen in the middle, and where we also see no traces of frame:
Looking at this work, we can assume presence of a mirror, but we couldn’t be completely sure.
Neither self-portraits in a mirror, nor even the self-portraits of painters with their models could be called very original per se. The famous self-portrait of Rembrandt with his wife Saskia (which was made with a help of a mirror, of course) was created 1636, and even then was widely considered an allusion to a legendary work of Raphael:
Was Bonnard the first artist who portray himself completely naked? I don’t really know, and there a certain chance that yes, he could be. Soon after this portraits we will see numerous nude self-portraits by Egon Schiele. But I can’t easily remember any similar work much earlier than that time.
The point here is not nudity, but a very special atmosphere created in these works. It is intimate, vulnerable even a scene, but far from a typical peeping through the keyhole feeling that is present in many similar portraits of named women. There is no embarrassing voyeurism here, no shame at all, we are entrusted to come into the inner life of a real couple, and expected to behave there with respect and dignity. Again, not coincidentally they have to coin the word ‘intimism’ to describe this manner of painting.
I already wrote earlier that I consider this ‘mirror’ very central, pivotal for Bonnard. To prove it we need to just look at many of his later works (and we will see them later in this, and especially in the next posting). As with every major development, thought, it did’t change his works immediately, and for some while Bonnard kept creating more ordinary mirrors, too.
Here is an example of a homey interior, painted in the house of his mother and his younger sister, who already had two kids by that time (Bonnards will never havechildren ). We see a mirror here, too, and it helps to build a composition, but in essence it is merely a part of the interior.
The Evening Under the Lamp (1903)
Or this portrait of Ambroise Vollard, a known Parisian publisher and collector of arts. The portrait is painted in the Bonnard’s studio, and we see the same mirror that was also used in many other works, too. It is not here to be used by the sitter, but in this case it is also not a completely neutral part of the scene, it is depicted as if it opens a door into another world, perhaps the inner world of art and fantasy; we see there something that resembles the painter’s easel:
Portrait of Ambroise Vollard (1905)
Vollard played an important role in Bonnard’s life, he became one of the first buyers of his works, and also introduced him to other customers. By the age of forty Bonnard is reading financial security and his works are eagerly purchased by private collectors and museums alike.
In my postings I obviously skewed towards the ‘mirror works’ of painters, and in case of Bonnard it’s relatively easy, as he created many of those. Still, however, the majority of his works had nothing to do with mirrors, these were interiors, landscapes, family portraits, simple portraits, and so forth. In case of curiosity, these days one can quickly make the first impression about almost any known painter by simply visiting the page on WikiArt; here’s one about Bonnard:
Meanwhile, I will continue with my ‘mirrors’.
The following portrait shows for the first time a dressing table with a mirror, the one that will become a ‘hero’ of many Bonnard’s works later one. The title of the paiting is “In the bathroom”, but we need remember that these were bathrooms in our understanding of the word, yet. There was no running water in the studio of Bonnard, and ‘taking a bath’ often meant simply sponging with a wet towel.
In the bathroom (1907)
We may only guess who was the model for this work. Martha was still sitting for Bonnard, but he began to invite other models to his studio, too.
For example, in the work from the Pushkin Gallery that I showed in the very beginning we see one of these new models, but also Marth, quietly drinking coffee at the table in the corner of the room (or in the corner of the mirror’, depending on how we want to describe the composition.
Mirror above a washstand (1908)
As I said, this mirror will be painted so many time by Bonnard that we can examine it very thoroughly, conducting an anthropological study of the dressing tables of this time…
La Toilette (1908)
including anthropology of using these mirrors:
The Mirror in the Green Room (1909)
The next portrait employs very unusual point of view, top down. It looks as if Bonnard was standing on a chair while paiting this work (and in this way he was also able to show us the reflection of a carpet on a flow, an object that is rarely associated with dressing tables and their mirrors).
Reflection (Tub in a Mirror) (1909)
Perhaps the most famous, stellar work from this series is the portrait of Martha Against the Light (Nu a contre jour), made by Bonnard in 1908.
It is an amazingly beautiful, mesmerising work that creates the feeling of a light-fall that pour on the viewer from the canvas. It literally arrests many people in front of this
There are numerous works written about this paiting that try to understand how exactly Bonnard achieved this effect. With time Bonnard has developed a very complex system of putting pigments on the canvases, often using two, three and more layers of paints.
, including the flowers themselves, and the method of their application to the canvas (Bonnard almost always used a very multi-layered painting, when the color was created superposition of two, three, or even a greater number of colors one another.
The detail below shows the ‘light’ beaming through the delicate translucent curtains. In reality it’s almost chaotictly positioned spots of different hues of white and blue placed on the yellow surface (which itself is pained on top of off-white backgroud. A very complex structure creating very powerful effect, and very believable moment of one early morning. Bonnard has been called the Grand Master of Yellow.
By the way, in addition to a large mirror of the dressing table we can see another, smaller mirror on a wall.
We will be also seeing this three-wing mirror in many of the Bonnard’s paintings later on.
When writing about mirrors-heros in the works of Bonnard, I am, of course, giggling a bit. The main heros, or heroines of (or on) many of his canvases are women (whether nude or otherwise). His favorite genre is individual portrait of standing woman, in most cases of a very elongated format. Here are just a few examples:
Femme devant un miroir (1908)
La toilette (1908)
After the Bath (1910)
Tall Nude (also known as Woman Nude Standing) (1906)
Not very often, but Bonnard also painted two models, like in this case:
Nudes reflected in a mirror (1907)
The next work is interesting. It shows the same mirror that we’ve seen many times before, and already a familiar trick when the painter shows only a fragment of the model’s body (by the way, in this case it’s likely Bonnard himself, so it could be called ‘Self-Portrait in a Mirror’ – although it’s better known as the Table with a Bouquet of Red and Yellow Flowers (1913):
But what’s interesting is that attributed date of this paiting, 1913. I think it’s not correct, and this work should have been painted earlier.
Because in 1912 Bonnards moved from Paris to a small town called Vernon (and to my knowledge they didn’t take any furniture with them, because they rented their apartments in Paris.) Nah, it’s all wrong, I later found a lot of his later works with this mirror made during the times in Vernon. So, they either took this mirror with them – or bought a very similar table.
In any case, this moves has started new and a very different period of their life, and I need to park the story about the next years and the next mirrors till the next posting.
Bonnard in his studio in vernon, circa 1914.