Mlles. Bowers, Paris (by descent from the above)
Acquavella Galleries, Inc., New York (acquired from the above)
Acquired from the above in 1966
Although Bonnard executed portraits of Marthe across multiple media, including photography, it is in his paintings of her that he could capture the sensuality of the scene at its most palpable. By using luxurious color to exploit compositional complexities, he created images that would inspire future generations of artists, including Lucian Freud. Sarah Whitfield writes, "Bonnard began painting pictures of Marthe washing early on (from the 1900s), rather in the manner of Degas who had made the subject of feminine hygiene his own. The subject of the nude washing herself in a round zinc tub was one Bonnard treated at least a dozen times in the period between 1914 and 1917. These works are concerned above all with composition, combining Bonnard's favorite device of creating a painting around an empty space, preferably a round void (for which the tub provided the best possible pretext) with his attachment to classical sculpture (the nude crouching in the tub is surely a series of variations on the theme of the Crouching Aphrodite in the Louvre)" (Sarah Whitfield, Bonnard, (exhibition catalogue), Tate Gallery, London & The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1998, p. 28).
As Whitfield mentions, Bonnard's intimate depictions of nudes are indebted to the tradition of Degas, whose pastels of women at their toilette were a great source of inspiration for the artist. For this work, Bonnard chooses a soft palette similar in tone to Degas's delicate pastels, but the medium of oil allows for a more clearly defined depiction of the figure. One of Bonnard’s main concerns here is the balance of his composition, as he positions the clearly-defined figure of Marthe in front of a window that is illuminated in washes of color.
The monumental nude, as in the present work, was a major recurring theme in Bonnard's work from his early years before 1900 until his death in 1947. Sasha Newman in the catalogue of Bonnard exhibition in Paris, Washington and Dallas in 1984 discusses the early nudes as follows: "This early exploration of the female subject culminated in a series of nudes painted in the years preceding the turn of the century, including L'Homme et la femme, L'Indolente (Dauberville, no. 219), and La Sieste (Dauberville, no. 227), which resonate with an explicit eroticism unique in Bonnard's work. The emotional charge of these paintings continues to inform his later nudes - modulated, transformed, but ever present - and becomes the central feature in so many of the interiors in the early years of the twentieth century. Bonnard's obsession with the nude is generally focused on the lonely, solitary figure of Marthe" (Pierre Bonnard: The Late Paintings (exhibition catalogue), Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. & Dallas Museum of Art, 1984, p. 108).
Considering the rich symbolism of Bonnard's paintings of the nude, John Elderfield has written about the significance of the model’s intense focus on her own body, and the voyeurism inherent in these paintings: “The self-absorption is, of course, an apartness. But the prolonged, extended, unhurried activity only apparently excludes the beholder, who waits and watches and can imagine closeness amounting to an identification with the never-ageing, painted woman ('He looked after her, feared her, put up with her, loved her,' a common friend wrote: 'her identity almost merged with his in the constant anxiety she caused him.') Not just looked at but looked after, Marthe is supported in these paintings, which are among Bonnard's slowest, their slowness bespeaking the tactile solicitude of the gaze" (J. Elderfield, "Seeing Bonnard", in Bonnard, The Tate gallery, London (exhibition catalogue), 1998, p. 45).
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