Impressionist & Modern Art

Pierre Bonnard: 7 Things You Need to Know

By Danny Zhang

1.    Pierre Bonnard was born in 1867 in the Parisian suburb Fontenay-aux-Roses. His father was a French War Ministry official and guided him towards the legal profession. Bonnard, succumbing to familial pressure, studied law at the Sorbonne and practiced as a lawyer for a few years before pursuing a career as an artist.

Portrait of the Artist Pierre Bonnard


2.    Trained briefly at the École des Beaux-Arts, Pierre Bonnard transferred to the Académie Julian in 1887 and quickly associated himself with the avant-garde circle of Maurice Denis, Paul Sérusier, and Édouard Vuillard, eventually sharing a studio with the latter. This group of young artists called themselves the “Les Nabis,” meaning “prophets” in Hebrew and Arabic. Drawing upon Symbolist ideas propagated by Paul Gauguin, Nabis painters sought to explore the mystical and the spiritual through everyday subjects.

3.    Bonnard developed his own Nabis vocabulary within this group and depicted mostly intimate interior scenes. These vibrant scenes demonstrate Bonnard’s mastery of color as a vehicle for expression and the influence of the flat dimensionality of Japanese prints.

4.    In many of these interior scenes, Marthe de Meligny, Bonnard’s lover, served as the central subject. A fiercely private person, Marthe met Bonnard in 1893 and quickly became the artist’s most important model. The couple did not get married until more than 30 years after their first meeting and only then did she reveal to Bonnard her real name: Maria Boursin.


5.    Portraits of Boursin in various domestic spaces are some of the most iconic works of Bonnard’s oeuvre. In composing his interior scenes, Bonnard began with drawings and studies in watercolor. Only when he familiarized himself deeply with the subject in his own memory did he transfer the composition to canvas.

6.    At various points in Bonnard’s career, he carried on the Impressionist tradition of capturing vignettes of Parisian modern life. These works, depicting parks, cafés, street scenes, often expressed a sense of alienation of the personnages within them.

7.    In the latter two decades of his life, Bonnard spent most of his time at his home in Le Cannet, on the Côte d’Azur, where he explored, with endless variation, the familiar themes of compositionally complex interiors and expressive street scenes and landscapes, all with the bold palette that has come to define his artistic legacy.

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