WORKS FROM AN IMPORTANT PRIVATE COLLECTION, SOLD IN PART TO BENEFIT TWO NOT-FOR-PROFIT INSTITUTIONS IN THE FIELDS OF SCIENCE AND MUSIC
A careful study in spatial balance and color theory, the present work witnesses the artist at his finest, and refutes the comments of Picasso, who once famously derided Bonnard’s work as “a potpourri of indecision" (F. Gilot & C. Lake, Life with Picasso, 1964, New York, pp. 271–72).
Considered “one of the most perfect pages Bonnard has ever written on a theme which he frequently took up throughout his life” (Pierre Bonnard (exhibition catalogue), Musée Rath, Geneva, 1981, n.p.), Nature morte à la levrette presents a harmoniously balanced tableau, recalling not only the dark hues and chiaroscuro of Chardin, but also the subject matter and composition of the master’s much-admired still life, The Buffet (see fig. 1).
Much like Cézanne, whose experiments with depth and perspective resulted in numerous still lifes, Bonnard also carefully constructed his composition with flattened expanses and foreshortened angles (see figs. 2 & 3). Continuing in the Nabis tradition of decorative painting, Bonnard employs flat planes of color, building depth in the scene through the clever delineation of light and dark, read here as the blue-tinged whites of the table cloths which emerge from the red-brown wall. The dark lower half of the composition is offset by a weighty abundance of red and purple fruits, illuminated by purposeful strokes of green, yellow and white which find resonance in the highlighted sheen of the dog’s coat.
Bonnard’s hazy definition and unusual configuration of his subjects lends an air of mystery to his compositions, as the viewer can never be certain of just what is before them, nor of where one form ends and another begins. While the dining scene and dog dominate the frame, the edges of the work seem to dance away, obscured by painterly daubs of white, purple and blue.
Despite the bounty of fruit and dishware and the graceful silhouette of the greyhound, there is something decidedly humble about this setting. Unembellished linens drape casually over the table and shelf, matched by the stacks of white ceramic plates and bowls. This is not a statement of bourgeoise opulence, but a quiet reflection on a familiar space, tenderly imagined by its proprietor.
Though the genre of the still life dates back to the Academy, it is Bonnard’s idiosyncratic approach to painting which helps distinguish his scenes from those of the past. For Bonnard, painting was less about presenting an objective portrayal of the objects and people within the frame, and more about decoratively reconciling the reality of his subjects with his personal perceptions of them. While many of his contemporaries were painting en plein air or directly from life, Bonnard preferred to spend time with his subjects, often occupying the spaces and observing the subjects for weeks, months or even years before painting them from memory.
For the remainder of his career, Bonnard would focus primarily on domestic spaces and the living creatures that inhabited them. Bathing scenes dominated these later works, as Bonnard increasingly spent more time at home with his beloved wife and ultimate muse, Marthe.
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