The stylized Nabis aesthetic runs deeply throughout Bonnard’s work, but by the turn of the century his paintings began to have more in common with those of Edgar Degas and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. "When we discovered Impressionism a little later," Bonnard stated, "it came as a new enthusiasm, a sense of revelation and liberation. Impressionism brought us freedom" (quoted in Timothy Hyman, Bonnard
, London 1998, p. 65). The rich patterning and coloration in Femme à la rose
reflect his stated intention to pick up where the Impressionists left off and to go even further. The characteristically dense black of the sitter’s skirt underscores the daringly free and broken brushwork of her chemise. Without departing from the premise of realism, Bonnard integrated a new atmosphere of light into his works. As Line Clausen Pedersen comments: “He had the luxury of looking back and forward at the same time, allowing him to draw from the legacy of Impressionism and, by stepping away from any romantic notion of nature, to choose his subjects and painterly technique devoid of any pre-set agenda. The result is highly idiosyncratic, somehow echoing Impressionism at first glance, yet anything but an immediate sharing of impressions” (Line Clausen Pedersen, “Painting Applied, The Dining Room,
in Pierre Bonnard, The Colour of Memory,
London, 2019, p. 45).
Bonnard was aware of what Matisse was doing with color and the Cubists with space, but his genius was to absorb their discoveries on his own terms, finding subjects where these abstract concepts could be treated in a seemingly naturalistic way. “Faced with the overtly decorative style of Matisse, who had assumed the leadership of the avant-garde, he went in the opposite direction, his art becoming more atmospheric and naturalistic, his settings resolutely French” (Nicholas Watkins, Bonnard
, London, 1994, p. 85). Bonnard had followed the footsteps of several contemporaries and made a trip to the South of France in early 1906, and two years later traveled further to Algeria and Tunis, but he did not feel the same need to translate the sensations of his travels into explosive and disruptive color combinations. His restraint almost feels like a conscious decision. “A sequence of marks which join together and end up forming the object, the fragment over which the eye wanders without a hitch” was how he described painting, a summation which downplays the increasing subtlety of design and arrangement of space which is among the most attractive and revolutionary aspects of his work (quoted in ibid.,
Bonnard cast aside traditional notions of perspective, as we see in Femme à la rose where he plays with flattened planes and geometric alignments, years before it became common practice to build a composition so flagrantly around squares, lines and angles. The effect he sought was "to show what one sees when one enters a room all of a sudden," that sense of uncertain depths before one has brought into focus or identified the various details (quoted in Marcel Arland & Jean Leymarie, Bonnard dans sa lumière, Paris, 1978, p. 21).
Radical in execution, this intimate scene is a classic example of the manner in which Bonnard’s best work feels both traditional and completely modern at the same time. The year after it was painted, Femme à la rose was acquired by the legendary gallerist Heinrich Thannhauser, whose Munich exhibitions included the work of some of the most notable French Post-Impressionists and artists who would later come to define the avant-garde.