Lot 16
  • 16

Pierre Bonnard

4,500,000 - 5,500,000 GBP
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  • Pierre Bonnard
  • signed Bonnard (lower right)

  • oil on canvas
  • 125 by 64.3cm.
  • 49 1/4 by 25 3/8 in.


Estate of the artist
Wildenstein & Co., New York (acquired from the above on 14th March 1963)
Mr & Mrs John D. Rockefeller 3rd, New York (acquired from the above on 24th January 1964)
Thence by descent to the present owner


New York, The Museum of Modern Art; Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art & Chicago, The Art Institute of Chicago, Bonnard and His Environment, 1964-65, no. 51, illustrated in the catalogue
Museo de Bellas Artes, Caracas; Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires; Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de la Universidad de Chile, Santiago, De Cézanne a Miró, una exposición organizada bajo los auspicios del International Council of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1968
Walker Arts Center, Minneapolis (on loan), 1979-1997
Minneapolis, Minneapolis Institute of Arts (on loan), 1997-2012


Anette Vaillant, Bonnard, New York, 1965, illustrated in colour p. 91
Jean & Henry Dauberville, Bonnard, catalogue raisonné l'œuvre  peint 1920-1939, Paris, 1973, vol. III, no. 1481, illustrated p. 379


This work is in very good condition. The only spots of retouching are very minor - a tiny spot of retouching above the head of the figure, a small spot in the upper right corner and a few very small lines of retouching on the lower framing edge, only visible under ultra-violet light. The painting has an old relining which continues to give it excellent stability and support without affecting the surface of the paint. Colours: Overall fairly accurate in the printed catalogue illustration, althought the colours are more luminous in the original.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Sotheby's is honoured to be offering Pierre Bonnard's magnificent Nu debout. This picture comes from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd, pre-eminent American philanthropists who supported a wide-range of causes and also shared great interest and pleasure in their art collection.  This superb Bonnard hung in the living room of their duplex on Beekman Place, in New York City.

John D. Rockefeller 3rd was the eldest of the famous five sons of John D. Rockefeller, Jr.  In the arts alone, he was the founding president of Lincoln Center, revived the Japan Society and founded the Asia Society – all in New York City. His wife, Blanchette, was very active with the  Museum of Modern Art beginning in 1949.  She was named a trustee in 1953 and served continuously until 1987. During that time, Mrs. Rockefeller twice served as president and was elected chairman of the board in 1985.

In 1950, she commissioned a guest house by Philip Johnson on East 52nd Street, six blocks from their Beekman Place apartment.  She used this space to display her growing collection of modern art.  However, it was in their home that they hung pieces collected together, Impressionist works, American paintings and decorative works of art from Asia.

Sotheby's is pleased to offer Nu debout, an exceptional painting from an equally exceptional collection.

Dating from circa 1931, Nu debout is a masterpiece of Bonnard's mature period and a fascinating example of his domestic settings. Painted in the most luminous tones of yellows, reds and pinks, the present work marks one of the artist's major oils from his series of nudes. The theme of la vie bourgeoise preoccupied Bonnard from the time of his earlier intimiste scenes of the 1890s, right until the end of his career. These interiors are dominated by his wife Marthe, and in the present composition she is depicted drying herself after a bath, most probably in the couple's home 'Le Bosquet' in Le Cannet. Both the interior and the exterior of the villa provided the artist with a constant source of inspiration, resulting in powerful, boldly coloured works. As Jörg Zutter wrote: 'By 1931 Le Bosquet was Bonnard's favourite place to work and in 1939 it became the couple's permanent home. The house and its surroundings provided an ideal work environment for the artist, who continued to paint studies of Marthe, often standing in the bathroom or lying in the tub [figs. 1 & 2]' (J. Zutter in Pierre Bonnard: Observing Nature (exhibition catalogue), National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2003, p. 61).  

Throughout his career, Bonnard depicted his wife in a domestic setting, occupied by a daily routine such as drying herself after a bath, bathing, reading or eating. Bonnard met Marthe de Méligny (née Maria Boursin) in 1893, when she was a fashionable young Parisian shop girl, and married her in 1925. Discussing Bonnard's portrayals of Marthe, Sarah Whitfield wrote: 'Marthe is almost always seen in her own domestic surroundings, and as an integral part of those surroundings. [...] In a sense many of these works are variations on the theme of the artist and his model as well as on the double portrait. This is the case even when Bonnard is not visible. [...] We are always made acutely aware that whatever the subject of the painting – a nude, a still life, a landscape – what we are being asked to witness (and to participate in) is the process of looking. But it is in the paintings of Marthe above all that we find Bonnard portraying himself as the ever-attentive, watchful presence' (ibid., p. 17).

In the present work a warm Mediterranean light falls through the open door in the background, bathing the entire scene in a soft light, and heightening the effect of a jewel-like, iridescent surface. Many artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century found in the Mediterranean light an exciting source of painterly stimulus. Like Monet, Cézanne and the Fauve painters, Bonnard's boldest use of colour was inspired by a particular intensity of light in this region to which he often returned. Bonnard's subjects were always inspired by his immediate surroundings whether he was painting the countryside of the Seine valley, the landscape of the Midi, his own dining room, or the modest interiors of small holiday retreats. Indeed, bathers and nudes were among the most important images in Bonnard's visual vocabulary and personal iconography. Even though we recognise the nudes in his paintings as people deeply involved in his life, whether his life-long companion Marthe (fig. 4), a mistress, or a model, many have been influenced by Bonnard's admiration for classical Greek sculpture. Conscious though he was of the classical ideal, Bonnard was not striving for the perfection of symmetry by balance and compensation, but he makes sure that while the figure contains within itself 'the rhythms of movement', it 'always comes to rest at its true centre' (Kenneth Clark, The Nude, London, 1985, p. 33). Here we see this in the way the nude's arm is raised in a movement that exposes the clean lines and sculptural curves of the body as well as its perfectly centred weight. Nevertheless it is a figure we can easily place in modern time and space.

The gesture of the arm is particularly important to the success of the painting. It alludes to the Dying Niobe (fig. 3), the renowned classical stature whose pose appears to have imprinted itself on Bonnard's visual memory. Moreover, it is a gesture that Bonnard translates into a meaningful one for his modern audience through its suggestion of pinning or tidying into place a strand of hair. Thus the classical prototype is almost invisibly fused with the modern, living figure. Furthermore the profile view allows Bonnard to play on the shape made by the smooth curve of the arm. The raised arm also allows Bonnard to keep Marthe's face partially hidden, thereby underscoring the intimacy of the subject and instilling a sense of mystery that is central to the allure of this remarkable interpretation of a theme that has fascinated artists for centuries.

Marthe's elongated body divides the canvas into equal sections whilst the furinture arranged either side of her creates a tightly composed, nearly abstract, pattern in the background. Dita Amory once argued that 'Marthe is a surrogate for the painter, and her cloth a surrogate for the rag Bonnard so often held in his hand while painting. [...] Her shoes, the only unambiguous elements among the passages at bottom, establish the horizontal of the ground in this otherwise insistently vertical composition' (D. Amory in Pierre Bonnard: The Late Interiors (exhibition catalogue), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2009, p. 118). 

Sarah Whitfield noted on Bonnard's mature interior scenes: 'One way of looking at the bathroom paintings of the last twenty years, at the unchanging figure of Marthe, is to see how [Bonnard] embalms an image in memory while keeping it alive and in the present by emphasising the organic nature of the paint. There is no contradiction here, just the "subtle balance between lies and truth" that Bonnard speaks of' (S. Whitfield, 'Fragments of Identical World', in Bonnard (exhibition catalogue), Tate Gallery, London, 1998, p. 29). Jacqueline Munck further explains that: 'According to David Sylvester, this series of nudes in in the bath ranks along with Matisse's bath scenes among the major works of the twentieth century – marking the dissolution of the body into paint and maintaining its trace in the sumptuous reliquary of colour' (J. Munck, 'The nudes in the bathtub', in Pierre Bonnard, The Work of Art: Suspending Time (exhibition catalogue), Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris, 2006, p. 204).

FIG. 1,  Pierre Bonnard, Nu dans le bain, 1936-38, oil on canvas, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Paris

FIG. 2, Pierre Bonnard, La toilette (Nu au miroir), 1931, oil on canvas, Ca' Pesaro, Galleria Internazionale d'Arte Moderna, Venice

FIG. 3, Dying Niobe, 5th century B.C., National Museum, Rome

FIG. 4, Marthe taking a bath, circa 1912. Photograph by Pierre Bonnard