Bonnard’s Mirrors, or Late (Auto)Reflections

I left Bonnard in the last posting at the moment when they left Paris; and also with a photography most likely made by Martha, if to judge its quality. With time photography was playing more and more important role in the art of Bonnard, as he often used instead of the first pencil sketches, to catch the scenes that he will be later depicting in his paintings.

It’s not really clear who is depicted on this photo (above). According to some sources, it was Martha, while others argue that it is one of his new models that he found in Vernon (the photo is dated 1916). Interestingly that mirror-wise Bonnard constructed the same composition that he often used in the paintings, when a mirror duplicates a model.

We certainly know that the next series of photographs depict Martha/Maria.

As far as I know, none of these pictures would become an exact prototype for any one paintings later on. Rather, with the help of a camera Bonnard was building a kind of ‘alphabet’ of the poses-letters, that he would use to ‘write’ more complex stories in his various works.

Though sometimes we see direct copying of the photographs, too.  For example, when Bonnard was commissioned to create  a series of illustrations for an edition of ‘Daphnis and Chloe’, he made a large number of photographs of Martha in their garden, and also asked her to take a few photos of himself.

Some of these photos became the basis for his illustrations for the book; for example, this is one of the photos from this series:

and here is an illustration from the book:


It is important here to mention one peculiar feature of Martha: she washed herself very often, too often, some say, taking bah two or three times a day, every day. It is still unclear what was the cause of this behavior. Some argue that she a skin disease and had to soak her skin, while others insist that it was a neurotic obsession, and that the problems with skin appeared later, as a result.

These conditions of his partner, and then wife may actually explain why we see so many ‘bathrooms’ and ‘bathes’ (or initially ‘basins’) in the paintings of Bonnard (and bear in mind that I am showing here a smaller selection of such works, as many of them don’t have mirrors).

Here is a fairly typical photograph Martha in a washbin – which also let us see the very dressing table, the one depicted on so many paintings of Bonnard.

with a mirror, the “hero” of many pictures that I showed in the last posting (from the mirror, however, remained “legs” only). We can even see a fragment of the mirror’s frame!

We see this mirror in full on one of the paintings of this period (called ‘Interior with a mirror‘  but likely depicting Bonnard himself sitting on a bed, so it would be better titled ‘Self-portrait in a mirror’). We also see here the dawn of the famous ‘amber’ hue that will become a brand sign of Bonnard’s works later on.

Interior with mirror (1913)

Bonnard will continue to create more and more intricate compositions with mirrors, sometimes showing only the reflection, but not a model, or sometimes showing only some fragments of both; Et non est simplex, ‘Nothing simple’ or ‘Not a thing simple’ could be a motto of his works.

By the way, worth noticing that we again see not one, but two mirrors depicted in this work.

The following work, for example, shows a naked model looking at the mirror, but does so cleverly that we don’t see her face. But we see – for the first time – a real bath, which at some point was installed in their house. From this moment one it will be present in dozens of the Bonnard’s paintings.

Female nude in a full-length mirror (1914)

Here again we see only some halves, half a mirror, and half a model.

Female nude in mirror (1910)

And in the next work we can sport the same three-wing mirror that was once depicted in the famous Contre jour, almost ten years ago.

Nu à l’étoffe rouge (Nu à la toilette) (1915)

What we can all spot in the last three works is that the woman depicted here is blonde (almost red hair). She couldn’t be Martha who was a dark brunette.

It is assumed that all these paintings depict some Renee Monchaty, a model who Pierre Bonnard, by then fifty years old, will meet in the south of France, and who for many years will be his mistress. He lived with her almost openly, without ceasing to co-habit with Martha too, who retained the status of  ‘wife, of some sort’.

Below is one of her most famous portraits of Renee by Bonnard:

Some researchers believe that Renee was a model for another very famous ‘mirror work’ of Bonnard, so called ‘Mantlepiece’ or ‘The Girl at the Mantlepiece“. We see here one of the most complex, challenging compositions here: Not only wee a reflection of the model but also her reflection in another mirror, reflected again in the mantlepiece one. Plus of course we see another painting on a background (and to make it completely mind-blowing, Bonnard could depict the paiting wither another mirror on it!)

Mantlepiece (1916)

This painting is one the very few works where we also have a sketch (Bonnard often used these sketches, but he didn’t keep them, and not so many of them remained for us.)

We can sense from this study that Bonnard was least interested in realistic depiction of the model. He doesn’t make these sketches to develop a better, more detailed representation. This is rather a Big Picture, a general plan of the next work that was later transferred to a larger canvas (interestingly, but Bonnard didn’t use the grid method to copy his sketches, and still worked mostly from memory).

Here is likely another paiting with Renee, it was made in Rome where they went together in 1921.

The Toilette (1921)

We can assume that Renee is also depicted on another similar portrait, of a nude from the back, and looking at a mirror. However, it will likely remain only a guess; Bonnard rarely recorded any details about his paintings. and himself tent to call them in a very general, often abstract manner, e.g., Nude in front of a mirror, Nude seen from behind and so forth (the official title of this paiting is a combination of the latter two):

Nude in front of a mirror seen from the back (c.1920)

As he wrote himself, “The precision of naming takes away from the uniqueness of seeing“. The latter was obviously more important for Bonnard.

There is a pencil sketch with a very similar figure of a woman in front of a mirror – it also depicts Bonnard himself. We see that the painter keep playing with this Inception-like motif, of a mirror in a mirror of a mirror:

Study for a self-portrait with a standing nude (1920)

I don’t know if this sketch later became a paiting. But there is another work, in many way playing with the same theme (though we see the painter’s leg only here, not his full figure or face):

Door opening onto the garden (1924)

This oscillation between Renee and Martha ended up pretty badly (though it depends, of course, whose side you’d take).

At some point Martha put an ultimatum, me or her, and Bonnard decides to stay with her; i.e., stay with Martha. In 1925, after they got officially married, after 33 years of living together. A month later Renee committed suicide.


Turning to more positive news, soon after their marriage Bonnard finally bought his own house (all this time before they lived in rented apartments). Their new house is located in Le Cannet, then a suburb and by now a district of Cannes.  Here is how this building looked at that time:

Today the building hosts the museum of Bonnard, Le musée Bonnard). Omnipotent Google helps to see how the building looks today:

Bonnard’s paiting have always been fill with light, but after the moved to Cote d’Azur, the light in his works became hyper-intense; as we will see, the mirrors will also became much brighter, and bigger.

There is another important innovation, the house not has running water, but also a bath, a real bath, that Martha will be taking daily (and Bonnard, respectively, will be regularly depicting the process):

The Bath (1925)

These glowing bathrooms will become one of the favorite theme of Bonnard for a while, and many visitors of his studio will be noticing numerous canvases with these bathes hanging all around his studio:

However, I found only one paiting where we can see both a bath and a mirror (notice that there is also a real sink, not a basin with water):

Nude with Green Slipper (1927)

Apparently Bonnard had some sort of fetish associated with women’s feet – if earlier he compulsively depicted his models’ stockings (mostly black), then later he replaced stockings with slippers, of all sort. And in many of his paintings the slippers are the only piece of ‘clothing’ on the models.

Nude in Front of a Mirror (1931)

This one and the next work are exampels of the mirrors of late Bonnard. It’s worth remembering that these are fairly large, meter and half tall works, so the women depicted on them looked almost like full-scale bodies.  Till the end of his life Bonnard remained faithful to the ‘Japanese’ style, with its vertical composition and perspective build by piling up multiple color patches.

“You reason color more than you reason drawing… Color has a logic as severe as form” –  wrote Bonnard in one of his letters to Matisse. After he moved to Cannes he became even more close, physically (Matisse lived not so far away, near Nice) but also professionally.  Bonnard greatly appreciated the works by Matisse, and this attitude was mutual. Matisse  considered Bonnard an unsurpassed master of complex, multi-color composition – and that’s Matisse, himself a grand master of color!

Large Yellow Nude (1931)

The last two works, and a small sketch which is considered a study for the first of them, we also see another mirror, placed on a small table (or maybe even connected to this table).

Presumed study for the Nude in Front of a Mirror (1931)

Almost all late Bonnard’s works with models and mirrors will be repeating the same composition, a naked woman standing in front of a mirror, shown from behind. Sometimes we see her face, as in this work:

Nude in front of the mirror (1934)

… and sometimes not. On the paiting below we can only imagine that ‘mirror cocoon’ which this women isis now submerged in. To show deep immersion without showing it is a highest form of art/zen.

Femme nue vue de dos (1928)

This is another work I found most recently:

Nu in front of a mirror (c.1934)

To my knowledge, this work below is the last nude with a mirror, painted by Bonnard when he was nearly 60 years old. After that he will pain few more nudes, and other mirrors, but never together.

Nude Bathing (1936)


In the last years of his life Bonnard made a series of self-portraits in mirrors, in a sense, returning to the theme he explored in his earliest self-portraits. He often included some ‘parts of himself’ in his works throughout life, but created only very few full self-portraits. But closer to the end he made a large series, and often including mirrors in them, too. This self-portrait is often called The Boxer:

The Boxer (Self-Portrait in a Mirror) (1931)

My hypothesis is that Bonnard tried not to merely depict himself, as a form of vanity of some sort, but to capture the same ‘mirror cocoon’ he was portraying so skilfully in his models. As he once said, “When you forget everything, there only remains yourselfand that is not enough.”  Or may be it’s my silly speculations.

Self-portrait (1938)

The next self-portrait is already from ‘another life. In 1942 Martha dies. Bonnard remains almost alone in this life. There is war all over in Europe. The world looks pretty apocalyptic. During war years Bonnard lives like a hermit, hardly seeing any people for months.


Self-portrait in a red dressing gown (1943)

But he still continues to paint, perhaps not so much to earn money, but because “it can’t be otherwise”. He’s getting weaker and weaker, when in 1944 he is visited by Henri Cartier-Bresson who wanted to take pictures of Bonnard, the photographer noticed that the painter moves through the empty house like a ghost.

This is Bonnard’s self-portrait circa 1945:

and this is the one that is considered hist last self-portrait:

Self-portrait in the bathroom mirror (1946)

Here he looks more like a mummy than a living person. Soon after Martha die one his friend after the other: Maurice Denis, Ker-Xavier Roussel, Aristide Maillol (French sculptor, who was a good friend of Bonnard and whose works he always admired).


Apparently, this kind of fixation of Bonnard on mirrors was well known to his friends and colleagues. I tend to show the works of the artists themselves, but there is also an entire genre of portraits of artists created by other artists (and lately also the photographs).

For example, there is a very symbolic depiction of Bonnard, made in 1918 by the French art critic and art collector George Besson, who was very well acquainted with Bonnard. It is in many ways an allusion to the works of Bonnard, and Bonnard himself, who prefers to present/reveal only a fragment of himself, and even that in reflection, blended with other color surfaces:


We also see a mirror on another well-known painting of Pierre Bonnard made by Édouard Vuillard. I don’t know exactly whether this paiting was created the house Bonnard or in the Vuillard studio. I have never seen such a mirror on any of the works by Bonnard:

Cartier-Bresson too, of course, could not avoid this mirror subject. This is the picture that was eventually chosen for the cover of the magazine dedicated to Bonnard’s anniversary :

Unfortunately, it so happens that this issue became posthumous. The artist died in January 23, 1947, in his house in Le Cannet.


It is not really clear for me what can be said as a way of ‘conclusion’. That Bonnard painted a lot of mirrors? That’s true, and I showed only a fraction of them, and my choice was also a bit biased. I was mostly showing is his mirror nu’s, while he also created plenty of nice still-lifes with mirrors,

plenty of nice interiors with mirrors, too.

That these mirrors were depicted in a very interesting, colorful way? Or that they play a very important role in these paintings (but what role, then?) One obvious function of all these mirrors is their use as reflectors, some sorts of transformers of light (and also color), that helped him to make his light-scapes even more interesting.

Yes, he used them for these purposes, among many others things used to achieve the same goal. It is known, for example, that he liked to look at the wings of butterflies. He even made a semi-joking prophesy for (or about) the future: “I should like to present myself to the young painters of the year 2000 with the wings of a butterfly.”

My guess that he also used these mirrors as a sort of ‘psychological machines’ that helped him in many ways to detach himself from the world, to estrange it (I am referring here to the concept of ‘estrangement’ as an art strategy, proposed by Yuri Lotman). Reflection is a good and powerful tool for such games, but what about reflecting on reflection? And turning of (self) revealing into (self) сoncealing.  ‘Auto’ in the title of this posting is reference to self-portraits, of course, but also to autism, that in certain conditions leads to autopoiesis of art.

So far, so good. I may come back to Bonnard in the future, there is an interesting twist here related to remakes and homages of this works.


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