A glamorization of modern art as revolutionary runs the risks, first, of neglecting what modern art may share with the past and, second, of promoting the myth of alienation from the past as an explanation of modernist fragmentation and destabilized order.
—John Elderfield, “Seeing Bonnard,” 1998

When Julius Meier-Graefe reviewed Pierre Bonnard’s 1933 installation at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, he remarked, “I should never have guessed that this singer of radiant hymns, this idyllic painter and sole transmitter of the lyricism of Renoir, could produce quite this type of work.” He concluded:

One could wish that some ambitious friend of the master would undertake a more extensive celebration, selecting with intelligent taste works of all periods based on thematic categories in order to reveal Bonnard [1867–1947] in his full stature. Not only the small circle of devotees, but the entire art world, insofar as it is possessed of eyes, would realize that France has in Bonnard her most distinguished, not to say her greatest, painter.

I am not surprised that Bonnard’s detractors, as I write this review, have chosen to ignore the shimmering new survey of Bonnard’s work now at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C..1 Not only is this a matter of self-preservation, but it also demonstrates to what extent Washington has been ignored historically within the intellectual circles of New York, its cultural institutions, and its academic support-network. The intelligentsia’s long indifference towards Bonnard, the intensely private French painter whose exquisitely beautiful works have been in the Phillips’s holdings for three-quarters of a century, has become embarrassing. This painter, once labeled insufficiently revolutionary, has smoldered like a subterranean coal fire, shooting out ever more brilliant arcs of light through time.

Starting in 1925, the Washington collector Duncan Phillips, along with his wife Marjorie Phillips, began to serve as the “ambitious friend of the master.” Linda Nochlin, the Lila Acheson Wallace professor of modern art at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, recently called Bonnard’s late bathers “exquisite rot.” But Phillips, with the eye of a connoisseur, recognized what an expert on “exquisite rot” would not. “What [Bonnard] has done,” he once stated, “is to carry his observations of the evanescent, especially of the movements and comminglements of color in light and shade, to hitherto undreamed subtleties of suggestion.”

Phillips went on to assemble the largest Bonnard collection in the United States: seventeen oil paintings, five drawings, and nine prints. He also established an institutional legacy at the Phillips Collection that sought to fortify Bonnard’s sumptuous, color-rich legacy. Upon seeing the Bonnard collection at the Phillips Memorial Gallery, as it was then known, Henri Matisse famously remarked “Bonnard is the greatest [painter] among us.” Bonnard’s influence crept into the work of such American painters as Mark Rothko (through color) and Larry Rivers (through figuration), as well as the artists of the 1960s Washington colorfield school.

The current Bonnard exhibition at the Phillips is not the first, nor will it be the last, devoted to the work of this master painter. But with 130 works it is the finest show on Bonnard I have seen. Positioned in the domestic interiors of the Phillips Collection, it is more intimate than the massive Bonnard retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art four years ago, more appealing than the dingy “Beyond the Easel” show at the Metropolitan last year.

The exhibition’s curator Elizabeth Hutton Turner has labeled this show “Early and Late,” but I was pleased to see the title taken more as suggestion than strict curatorial program in her hanging (the catalogue follows a standard chronological arrangement). Mid-career masterpieces like the white-hot White Interior (1932) greet the viewer upon arrival. A radiator, a tea kettle, a startled cat dissolve into dabs of white and yellow pigment. A halo of gold and crimson crackles from the head of the painter’s subject, bent over or kneeling on the floor. A fiery sky peeks in over the Mediterranean Sea and above a coastal town, through a cluster of frondescent trees, through a window and its windowpane, shimmering in reflection.

Pierre Bonnard,  White Interior,  1932, Oil on canvas, Museum of GrenobleGrenoble.

For Bonnard, the ideas of early and late, painterly progress and refinement, have less to do with a crystallization or narrowing of style than with the fecundity of color and space. Within the warren of domestic interiors that make up this wing of the Phillips Collection, Bonnard’s work takes on new resonance. The arabesque checkers of Woman with Dog (1891) swirl out into the explosion of greenery in The Open Window (1921) and in the rich patterns of Young Women in the Garden (Renée Monchaty and Marthe Bonnard) (c. 1921–23, 1945–46). A final room of Bonnard’s bathers, reached by a set of narrow stairways and halls, opens as an explosion of color and experimentation. The bathtubs and tile floors of The Large Bath, Nude (1937–39) and Nude in Bathtub (1941–46) tip out and bend into the viewer’s space, a sensation that has less to do with movement within the painted surface than of the painted surface flexing and revealing its contents for us to see. “I hope my paintings will endure without craquelure,” Bonnard once said. “I should like to present myself to the young painters of the year 2000 with the wings of a butterfly.” His work today appears alive and new. And can the metaphor be extended? In the undulating bathtubs of his bathing series, might we also see the chrysalides of the metamorphosis of Bonnard’s artistic reputation, a reevaluation of the artist that, after a hundred years, is still in flux?

Pierre Bonnard, Woman with Dog, 1891, Oil on canvas, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.

Few artists from the first half of the twentieth century, in fact, have created such a stir in the second as Pierre Bonnard. His reversal of fortune from obscurity and critical disdain to the ranks of one of France’s great masters in the eyes of some and an artist with undeniable mass appeal speaks to the strength and longevity of his work. It also points to a slow evolution in the history of taste, a shift in cultural priorities that only now may be coming to light.

Pierre Bonnard, The Open Window, 1921,  Oil on canvas,  the Phillips Collection , Washington, D.C.

Bonnard, as artistic personage, has had much going against him. He ignored the allures of primitivism and turned to the old masters and antiquity. Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism passed him by without notice, as did two world wars, the Russian revolution, and abstraction. In New York he lacked the early institutional advocacy enjoyed by Kandinsky (Guggenheim) and Picasso/Matisse (Museum of Modern Art). Clement Greenberg once remarked that Bonnard “smells permanently of the fashions of 1900–14, expressing as it does the desire of the French middle classes to make history stop and stand still at 1912.” In heady days of anxiety and tough-mindedness, few would admit to liking so beautiful a painter.

A son of the grande bourgeoisie, Bonnard was educated at the lycées and went on to study law in Paris, painting in his spare time. In Paul Sérusier, Maurice Denis, Ker-Xavier Roussel, and Edouard Vuillard (all graduates of the Lycée Condorcet) he found artistic compatriots. The summer after Bonnard finished his law degree, in 1888, they formed the Nabis, from the Hebrew word for “prophets.” The group dedicated themselves to aesthetic experimentation, Japonisme, and working beyond the easel towards domestic decoration, poster art, and illustration. Bonnard painted screens and drew book illustrations. The Nabis were fundamentally uninterested in politics.

“Painting,” he declared, “must above all be decorative.”

Among the aesthetic influences on Bonnard’s later work were the color combinations of Paul Gauguin and the color patterns imposed through the constraints of lithography. Bonnard had experimented with both from his time in the Nabis. He disdained ideologies. “His system consists of having no system” wrote Denis, “he easily escapes analysis.” Thadée Natanson, one of his first biographers, noted Bonnard’s reluctance around the theories of even friends like Denis and Sérusier. If Gauguin gave lip service to radical ideology and middle-class self-loathing, Bonnard exhibited no such political commitments. In both his extracurricular activities and the growing exuberance, color, and sensuality of his paintings, such as the unrestrained “Riviera” (1923), he confounded the history of modernism with radical unradicalism.

Believing that the School of Paris had not run its course, Bonnard took up some of the language of color and light of the impressionists soon after the turn of the century. His program of painterly inquiry delivered him from the Japonisme, lithography, and the “beyond the easel” strictures of the Nabis in the 1890s to the fluid colorist work of the rest of his career. Emboldened by his early work in decoration, he undertook a pragmatic investigation of paint and surface. “Painting,” he declared, “must above all be decorative.” As Denis famously said a year earlier: “Remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a naked woman, or some sort of narrative, is basically a flat surface covered with paints put together in a certain order.”

In 1911 Bonnard purchased a IICV Renault convertible, which he had painted a pale yellow. He enjoyed motoring on Highway 7 between Paris and the French Riviera, staying in hotels, and working from memory in his rooms by artificial light, often at night. With his future wife Marthe, in 1926, he settled in a villa at Le Cannet, a hillside village overlooking Cannes, which in 1931 became his permanent home and the site of his late, and most complex, work. Here, he imagined a youthful Marthe in her toilette and painted his iconic series of aqueous bathing portraits. He constructed colorfast specters of the Côte d’Azur countryside out of the view from his window (Studio with Mimosas [1939–46]). His itinerant movement through the geography of France, through the memory of his own life, and through the artistic past in the work of the second two-thirds of his life has called to mind, for some critics, the luxe, calme, et volupté of Gauguin, the dream mythologies of Claude Debussy, and the sense-memories of Marcel Proust.

At Le Cannet, through the remainder of his life, Bonnard worked as an artistic outsider. If his early production in the Nabis found its moment in critical history, his entire oeuvre, especially his unexplainable late work, became a litmus test towards one’s understanding of modernism: Camille Pissarro called him “hideous”; the conservative art critic Camille Mauclair wrote that he mistook “the principles of decoration with those of painting, which are totally different”; Christian Zervos refused to see him as a significant modern artist; Pablo Picasso called him a “potpourri of indecision” and went on—“that’s not painting, what he does. . . . I don’t want to be moved by him. He’s not really a modern painter. . . . Bonnard is just another neo-impressionist, a decadent, the end of an old idea, not the beginning of a new one.”

The low point came in 1947, the year of Bonnard’s death. An essay on the artist’s legacy in Cahiers d’Art concluded that “it is evident that this reverence is shared only by people who know nothing about the grave difficulties of art and cling above all to what is facile and agreeable.” While Bonnard found allies in Guillaume Apollinaire, Thadée Natanson, Alfred Jarry, the critics Elie Faure, Roger Fry, Clive Bell, Félix Fénéon, Fairfield Porter, and Leon Werth—and perhaps most importantly Henri Matisse—his future in the canon of modernism seemed far from certain.

Yet in the 1980s, like the rediscovery of late-Monet, an international reevaluation of Bonnard began to take shape. The world awakened to what Duncan Phillips had recognized five decades earlier. Writing about the Bonnard exhibition at Beaubourg in 1984, Hilton Kramer noted in these pages that “Bonnard has survived, at least until now, as a kind of displaced person in the art of our time.” Time narrows in the past, of course, and Bonnard’s impressionist anachronisms became less pronounced. The ideological thaw of the Eastern bloc as well as the approaching dead-end of the avant-gardes were also rendering modern art’s revolutionary pose less appealing. Then too there was Bonnard’s gorgeous late production to contend with, an ecstasy of paint that only the blind and the blind-folded fail to appreciate.

Yet through adherence to the avant-gardes, Bonnard’s critics appeared retrograde.

A new evaluation of Bonnard came together in the massive Bonnard retrospective of 1998, which showed at both the Tate Gallery, London and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. For New Yorkers the show was color-drenched Kumbh Mela. No longer would the secrets of Bonnard, cherished by the few, be either unknown or derided by the many. For the intellectual establishment, there were the catalogue essays of Sarah Whitfield and John Elderfield. Whitfield aligned Bonnard more thoroughly than before to the artistic models of the past. She also traced a line of modernist development from the Nabis and the symbolist poets of the 1890s through late Bonnard. This bypassed much of the huffing and puffing of the first decades of the twentieth century and legitimized Bonnard’s artistic trajectory. Elderfield not only collected a mass of optical research and academic study to put face value on Bonnard’s accomplishment, he also dismissed the attempted re-radicalization of Bonnard from those like Pierre Schneider. In his 1972 study of optics, Schneider had concluded that since Bonnard frequently placed the most important objects on the periphery of a picture, it showed that he had substituted multi-focused vision for traditional, hierarchical, centrally focused compositions.

After that show, the anti-Bonnardists launched their attacks. Peter Schjeldahl, then at the Village Voice, now at The New Yorker, wrote that Bonnard was “so harmless a little master” that “his work epitomizes an art that is on its last legs as a culture-changing enterprise—practically impatient to be over and done with.” In her Art in America review, Linda Nochlin wrote about Bonnard’s bathers: “I am so repelled by the melting of a flesh-and-blood model into the molten object of desire of the male painter that I want to plunge a knife into the delectable body-surface.” Yet through adherence to the avant-gardes, I imagine to their own surprise, Bonnard’s critics appeared retrograde. This painter, maligned in life, had been reborn. It was vindication for Duncan Phillips, and an acceptance that underscores the celebratory feeling now at his collection, where this metamorphosis began, and where it continues. See “Bonnard and ‘the stupidities’” (October 1998).

  1.   “Pierre Bonnard: Early and Late” opened at The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. on September 22, 2002, and remains on view until January 19, 2003. The exhibition will also be seen at the Denver Art Museum, Colorado (March 1–May 25, 2003). A catalogue of the exhibition, edited by Elizabeth Hutton Turner, has been published by Philip Wilson Publishers in collaboration with The Phillips Collection (256 pages, $45).

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 4, on page 32
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