Pierre Bonnard, The White Interior (1932)
Photo: Musée de Grenoble, Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADADGP, Paris

I dream of seeking the absolute,” Pierre Bonnard wrote to Henri Matisse early in November 1940. The phrase leaps off the page—for many reasons. First, there is the context. The letter dates from the years of the Second World War, when shortages and deprivations, even in the unoccupied South of France where both artists lived, made travel all but impossible. Unable to exchange their usual visits, deprived of their tête-à-tête studio conversations, Bonnard and...

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