The painter Pierre Bonnard was born in France in 1867, and came of age when Impressionism was at the height of its formative influence on young painters. He studied at the official French art academy, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, but during the creatively fertile 1890's teamed up with a group of young painters who were influenced greatly by Paul Gauguin. At this time, Gauguin had developed an aesthetic viewpoint which stood against the naturalism of the art of the past, including Impressionism, and looked for an art which was independent of external reality. This art would throw off the shackles of civilization, the accumulated conventions that stood in the way of man returning to his more natural, primitive self, and the romance of his original dreams and desires. This group of young painters, including Bonnard, called themselves the Nabis, or prophets. They followed Gauguin's dictum that color in painting should be used independently of objective reality, that painting is above all an arrangement of colors and shapes on a flat surface, and not an imitation of visible reality. Their subject matter tended toward the dream-like, like much of the art of the Symbolists such as Odilon Redon.
The painter Vuillard was also in this group, and remained a friend of Bonnard's all their lives. Their painting styles are also somewhat similar, in that they both painted many domestic interiors, with intense, high-keyed color, in a loose, painterly manner. Their work was also jewel-like in color, and the painting surface was always worked and re-worked over a period of time, resulting in a rich, scumbled luminosity and softened edges. Their style of working was called intimiste by French critics - a reference to the intimate interiors of their paintings, which were also painted in an intimate, human-touched manner.
Some other influences of the time included Japanese prints, which had been newly imported in the mid-19th century, and the new invention of photography. Both of these influenced painters' ideas about composition; photography with its snapshot effect of contemporary life, cutting off objects and figures in the middle, at the edges of the photograph; and Japanese prints (painters so influenced were referred to as japoniste) with their flattened space and lack of three-dimensional form. Up until the mid-19th century, Renaissance space had predominated - the illusion of objects receding into the distance, and the modeling of three-dimensional form using chiaroscuro (lights and darks, or shading).
Another difference from Impressionism was the Nabis' (or Symbolists') painting not from life, but from memory or their imaginations; also, they didn't use the small "dabs" that the Impressionists used in their paintings. Bonnard also worked and re-worked his canvases, unlike many Impressionist paintings, which were done "on the spot." Like Impressionism, though, there was a lack of three-dimensional modeling and conventional perspective; the work was more atmospheric (spatially concerned - an "airiness") rather than volumetric (concerned with three dimensions and linear perspective). And color was of paramount importance to them, as it was to the Impressionists. Impressionism was thus carried further by the Nabis; in particular, Bonnard adopted brushwork similar to that of Monet's late series of Water Lilies. There is a story that Monet grunted his approval in front of one of Bonnard's mature canvases.
In particular, the color violet had not been used very much prior to Impressionism; Bonnard made it his staple color, along with the other two secondary colors, orange and green, and all the mixtures of these colors to form rich grays. In fact, Bonnard is one of the best colorists of the 20th century; the color relationships in his paintings are nothing short of revelatory. His color is bold, luminous, opalescent and rich, and based on the relationships between adjacent colors and scumbling (painting layer over layer unevenly so that the underlying colors show through). His color, like that in painting since Manet, was based not on value (light and dark), but only color itself.
Painting since the mid-19th century in Europe had shifted from the former Renaissance tradition of illusionistic space to the modern flatness of painting, where all areas of the painting are on the same plane - the picture plane, as opposed to receding into the distance. This was accomplished in the positioning of forms on the picture plane in a more two-dimensional pattern, rather than using linear perspective. This could also be accomplished with the use of color: One way is to use color blotches, as Bonnard did, of equal intensities of color, so that they appear to be in the same position in space; another way is to use warm colors (orange, yellow) in the distant areas of the painting, and cool colors (blue, blue-violet) in the areas closest to the picture plane (front). Normally, warm colors are thought to come forward in space, and cool colors to recede into space. This causes the space to "even up" - and equalize, flattening the space onto one plane, located in the very front of the painting, closest to the viewer. Bonnard's use of color is sensual - to the point of strong emotion.
As far as subject matter, Bonnard is most known for his interiors of domestic scenes - his wife, Marthe, and their pet dogs and cats, often seated at a table full of dishes and food. Since Bonnard painted from memory, the type of space he used was more often "primitive," that is, more flat than linear perspective would be. So, the table surface was not in perspective - so the viewer sees most of the table as a flat, vertical area in the painting, rather than shortened as it would be if perspective was used. The round dishes are similarly more circles than ellipses, as they would be if viewed by someone seated at the table. Often, a window is used in the painting, through which we can see the distant and close landscape. So, many of his paintings are actually landscape, still life and figure. He also did many paintings of his wife (or a model) at her bath. These interiors are so intimate in feeling, they are like snapshots with a feeling of eternity to them. Bonnard felt that if he were to paint from life, he might get overwhelmed by the subject matter and paint a more naturalistic image; he wanted the paintings to be distilled by his memory. Painters speak of resistance from the subject matter; if one does not paint from life sufficiently when learning, there is a danger of not enough resistance from the subject matter (not being challenged by it); if one paints totally from life, there is a danger of too much resistance from the subject matter, which can stifle any visual independence on the part of the painter.
Other characteristics of Bonnard's work are: his free brushwork, where he uses all kinds of original marks and dabs and smears; his use of relaxed geometric, pictorial structuring under the painterly images (furniture, windows, trelliswork, etc.); and the fact that there is not a focal point in the paintings, but an all-over sense, present in most modern painting. He said that he wanted his paintings to appear like when someone just enters a room - purely visual, before the brain processes the information of named objects, etc. Often, he used the device of leaving the center of the canvas empty of figures or objects; like a wide-angle camera lens, the forms and objects are at the margins (sides), forcing the viewer to stray from the usual habit of looking at the center for the subject or focal point.
Habits which are prescient of much later painting include the use of light contours, as opposed to the traditional use of black or other dark contours; and a poetic, metaphysical view of everyday life and objects, which manifested a state-of-mind over a visual approach, much as Proust did in writing. The length of time Bonnard re-worked images and added layers of color also adds the element of time to his work, also like Proust.
The saturated areas of color in his work have been compared to the color fields of Mark Rothko, an Abstract Expressionist, and the two painters were featured together in an exhibition at the Pace Gallery in New York a few years ago because of this similarity. I think the work of both painters has, because of this saturation and luminescence of color, a spiritual or transcendent quality. Bonnard has been a tremendous influence on my work, both in subject matter, composition, and color, as well as the poetic, childlike, innocent, primitive sense of wonder in his work. One of my favorite things is his use of animals; a small dachsund, a cat; these peer up from the bottom of the painting, or sit wide-eyed with Marthe at the table. Not just as subject matter - but the way they are painted, along with the rest of the forms - the actual brushwork and simplified forms remind me of a child's work, in the best sense. The forms themselves are innocent, as well as the pets, not artfully depicted with the accumulated worldly wisdom of "adults." They make me feel human, and pure, and childlike - not to prejudge, or be all-knowing, or superior, or above the animals, like children are. I also like the idea of combining interiors, figures and landscapes into one painting.
Bonnard did a great many sketches during his life, every day in a diary/sketchbook, where he made many notes on the weather, on color, on art, on life. Two of these quotes reflect the ideas in the above paragraph:
"...states of daydreaming like a cat. Sleep between states of exaltation like the dog."
"I hope that my painting will endure without craquelure (cracking). I should like to present myself to the young painters of the year 2000 with the wings of a butterfly." - 1946
I'm not sure what he means by the second one, but a couple of things come to mind: Butterflies' wings have jewel-like areas which appear luminous, like his paintings; also, I take the butterfly image to mean a poetic flight, that his work should inspire beauty, imagination and poetry in the work of younger painters, not bound by preconceptions or burdened by a know-it-all attitude.
Bonnard died in 1947, at the age of 80. His work can be found in many of the world's museums; the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC has a particularly nice collection of Bonnard's work. Click here to see some of his work on the Net. On the bottom of that web page, there are links which take a visitor to Bonnard's early and later works, and which are also broken down by subject matter, such as interiors and figures.