Between the images taken with his beloved pocket Kodak, and the devout attention paid to Marthe, Bonnard built up a wealth of physical and mental images upon which he’d draw for his larger studio compositions. A keen observer of daily life and quotidian ritual, Bonnard preferred to paint from sketches, memory and imagination rather than directly from life; as he once stated, “I have all my subjects at hand. I go and look at them. I take notes. And then I go home. And before I start painting I reflect, I dream” (quoted in Bonnard (exhibition catalogue), Tate Gallery, London, 1998, pp. 9 & 30).
While his reverie-inspired approach would remain consistent throughout his oeuvre, Bonnard reached a turning point in 1909, when he spent the summer at the house of his friend and fellow painter Henri Manguin in St. Tropez. From this time onward, the artist, like so many of his colleagues, would be captivated by the effect of the Mediterranean light; “It was like something out of the Arabian Nights,” Bonnard remarked, “The sea, the yellow walls, the reflections as full of color as the light” (quoted in Pierre Bonnard, Painting Arcadia (exhibition catalogue), Musée d’Orsay, Paris, 2015, p. 314). By the time Bonnard and Marthe relocated permanently to Le Cannet in 1927, the artist’s work had already begun to capture the sublime liveliness and wealth of color of his environs (see fig. 1). The shimmering play of light and ethereal pigment choice inspired by the Mediterranean sun permeated all subjects, even the walled interiors of works like Femme se déshabillant.
First painted circa 1908 and enlivened by the artist circa 1930, Femme se déshabillant stands as an epitomal example of the artist’s late interiors, with Marthe as model set within a dreamy, almost aqueous background suffuse with light and shifting color. It is likely the fresh inspiration brought about by Bonnard’s move to the south of France, as well as his enduring quest to fully see his subjects, which led him to frequently return to paintings years later, perfecting his earlier canvasses and infusing them with light. The presence of thresholds—which often take the form of obscured windows and mirrors and which enigmatize Bonnard’s compositions—here compress the plane, bringing the subject closer to the fore and leaving but a narrow sliver of doorway at left through which to pass. Swathes of gold and pink in the figure’s right arm and leg contrast against the bright blues and dusty purples of the adjacent walls, and draw her nearer to the viewer, as if Bonnard himself were eliciting the attention of his wife.
The shimmering harmonies and dynamic color planes of Bonnard’s late oeuvre anticipate contemporary works by artists like Richard Diebenkorn, the California-based painter whose abstract works stem from an intensive study of Modern masters like Bonnard and embody the French painter’s reverence for light and a similar synthesis of a lifetime’s observation (see fig. 2). Bonnard’s timeless nudes and pursuit of the ephemeral also finds resonance in the recent works of another California-based painter, Laura Krifka (see fig. 3). Krikfa’s psychologically-charged canvasses are inspired by the temporality of photography; her carefully constructed compositions subtly challenging the viewer’s perception—just as Bonnard’s in the previous century.
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