While such a gesture might indicate the model’s awareness of the artist, Bonnard rarely painted directly from life, preferring instead to characterize his subjects in incandescent amalgams born out of prior sketches and long-internalized observations. The model here is almost certainly the artist’s partner, muse and later wife, Marthe de Méligny who is a recurring and mysterious figure throughout Bonnard’s work (see fig. 1). Always attuned to his surroundings and the familiar objects within them, Bonnard would increasingly depict interior and bathing scenes in his later years as he and his wife grew progressively more reclusive. Marthe, whose health plagued her throughout her life, was known to take frequent, verging on obsessive, baths during these times in an effort treat her unidentified ailments.
The present work initially seems to depict his muse from above, her head and gaze cast downward. Marthe’s elongated lower legs designate the foreground, exaggerating the elevated perspectival effect as the eye is drawn toward the sloping, deliquescent ground. Behind the shifting blues and whites of her dressing gown, however, lies the entryway which stands squarely parallel to the plane. Paired with the slanted floor, the door’s concentric contours of molding help to create a subtly vertiginous environment. By magnifying the scale of the scene, yet retaining the close composition of his earlier Intimist works, Bonnard directs all attention to the figure at center, compressing the room’s depth and conflating its multiple perspectives. With his play on light and perspective, and uncanny juxtaposition of figures, Bonnard’s seemingly simple interior scenes belie a deeper sense of mystery, revealing the quiet virtuosity and forethought of the inimitable painter.
A photo of Bonnard’s studio at Le Cannet (see fig. 2), where he lived and worked from around 1925 until his death, shows tacked to his wall a row of foil candy wrappers neatly aligned and stamped with various patterns—references which encouraged Bonnard to “find [his] sparkles” in his painting (P. Courthion, Bonnard: Peintre du merveilleux, Paris, 1945, pp. 30-31). The same image of Bonnard’s studio wall also shows a mix of postcards, maps and reproductions of works by Gauguin, Picasso, Seurat, as well as that of a Classical female nude. Such myriad visual sources reveal Bonnard’s wide-ranging knowledge of and appreciation for works both historic and modern. Marthe’s unconventional yet innately human pose in Femme à sa toilette, finds resonance in the well-known Classical sculpture of the Spinario, which dates back to the first century B.C. and depicts a young boy hunched over as he pulls a thorn from his foot (see fig. 3). Like Degas, however, Bonnard was concerned not with traditional idealizations of beauty, but by the peculiar angles and fragmented perspectives of life in motion; Marthe being for Bonnard a more intimate and immediate inspiration as young bathers and dancers were to Degas (see fig. 4).
Carefully composed and visually complex, this tender portrait of Bonnard’s beloved wife at her ablutions stands as one of the artist’s most remarkable bathing scenes still in private hands. A master of light and color, especially in his later years, Bonnard excelled at infusing an ethereal, almost nebulous quality into his works, verging on a sort of proto-abstraction (see fig. 5). This is an effect which Richard Diebenkorn would later harness in the luminous and grid-like abstract works of his Ocean Park series. Bonnard’s artistic legacy is apparent in these modern-day icons; recontextualizing the unusual croppings, iridescent color and angular abutments of artists like Bonnard and Matisse, Diebenkorn renders dreamily lit landscapes inspired by his own environs (see fig. 6).
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