Nearly everything we know about Pierre Bonnard from his friends and historians—his quiet temperament, his unobtrusive independence, the relative freedom of his life from the tensions and reversals of untoward circumstance, and the permanence with which his work has linked his name with the charm of nature—presents the quality of the ideal artist and the artist's ideal existence. Reviewing his life and work, one finds them, in their long and steady confluence, almost indistinguishable, so completely did the idyll of his art embody the happy aspects of this world and so completely did he live the poetic form which he fashioned to present them.That this should have been true of an artist who lived between 1867 and 1947, a period of the greatest conflict and change in his own field, is hard to realize, and the more so that he did not play the part of a hermit, but lived his life in the world and among many of the men who were involved in major artistic issues of his time.Like Daumier, whose life knew little serenity, Bonnard produced a work during his sixty years' activity that follows an even line of development. There are changes and fluctuations, to be sure, but one has to look closely for them and they grow into each other in a way that prohibits simple characterization.Growing up at a time when the Impressionists were winning their first recognition, Bonnard became the last and greatest representative of their tradition in the twentieth century. Accepting only those aspects of their view and technique which fitted with his own needs, he also became recognized as a great independent French master in his own right, related to Impressionism, but more through his continuation of their method of painting light and color through broken brush work (one of the elementary aspects of their style) than through conscious effort to extend their programs. Indeed one may say that after Monet's efforts in the 1880s to achieve accuracy of the instant in recording light had shown that his method could be carried no further, and after Gauguin, Cézanne, and Seurat had each gone his own way in reaction to the Impressionist's sacrifice of structure and restriction of content, Bonnard not only gave their tradition new life but carried it to a greater and grander culmination.The Institute's new Bonnard work, Dining Room in the Country
was painted in 1913, not long after the artist's first trip to the Mediterranean coast in the south of France, and after he had decided to divide his time between the radiant landscapes of that area and the Seine Valley to the northwest of Paris. It was the period of his “return to nature,” following his student days and the first ten years of his career up to the turn of the century in which his art and life were centered in Paris. He had bought a country house at Vernon where the light and undulating features of the river landscape had charmed him. The house had been named Ma Roulette
(My Gypsy Caravan), a name which he kept, and it became one of the two main centers of a communion with out-of-doors which thenceforth was to last to the end of his life.The picture is a sweeping tableau of the evanescent qualities of loveliness which sunlight confers upon the world of nature wherever it may fall or be reflected. Fashioned by an artistic whose eyes and sensibility were formed to receive the sense of beauty not through direct perception of the subject but through the atmosphere which envelopes all things, it weaves from the luminosities of a simple but carefully arranged interior with table, chairs, and human figure, combined with garden and landscape, a form and color pattern which lifts the view and each object within it from its physical identity to the plane of lyric poetry. In the activity of light and color from which Bonnard assembles the elements of a new and enhanced sense of beauty of his surroundings, he has in this work not only presented the warmth and stillness of a summer afternoon in the north of France in a way that immediately draws us into the scene, but he has given each object and figure the character which we feel instinctively is its own in terms of his view and thus presents a particular environment in which we feel, with him, the most pleasurable privacy and intimacy.Some years later, after he had passed fifty, Bonnard turned again to the combined interior and exterior view as the basis of several of his largest and most important compositions, notably The Phillips Memorial Gallery's The Palm
and The Open Window,
and The Museum of Modern Art's Breakfast Room.
The Institute's Dining Room in the Country
painted nearly a decade before the first of these pictures, announces them in a work which goes beyond any of them in range of light quality treated—from broad open sky to blocked corners of a sheltered interior; in the expanse of landscape presented—a complete picture in itself, although less than half the total composition; and in size—it measures 63 by 80 inches, one of the largest canvases Bonnard ever painted. The Impressionists of the 1880s and 1890s, the most characteristic features of whose technique formed the lifelong basis of Bonnard's own method, would have caught their breaths before the scale, breadth of view and range of effects which broken color, now mixed rather than pure, has been made in this work to articulate the perception of nature through atmosphere.One is tempted to consider Edouard Manet's dramatic figure group, The Balcony,
of 1868, with its contraposition of extreme lights and darks for foreground and background, as the prototype of this extraordinary attainment, through light painting, of amplitude and grandeur. Yet none of the key impressionists who followed Manet, with the possible exception of Renoir, developed or foresaw such possibilities until Bonnard. On the whole, their out-of-door, and less frequent interior painting was non-composite; i.e., kept within the range of what their eyes could see in a single glance and never went so far as to combine the light qualities of deep inside and far outside to the degree that we notice here. No doubt Bonnard's achievement was conditioned and made possible by the movements which reacted against Impressionism. Gauguin had insisted upon “style,” reducing nature to simplified colors and arabesque patterns, and this concern, together with the new interest of his colleagues in “decorative” art during Bonnard's early years, provided an impetus for changing the outward appearance of nature upon which the Impressionists often literally relied. Bonnard, in constant association with the theorists, would form no part of their ranks, but he did carefully listen to what they said and bit by bit pieced together those elements of their thought which would reinforce his ability to represent the varied interest and beauty of the world which he found around him.Within the enlarged light and compositional framework which Bonnard brings to the force in Dining Room in the Country
he presents with new eloquence characteristics of his personal style which had attracted the attention of leading Paris critics and which, as early as 1893, had prompted one of them, Roger Marx, to acclaim him as “one of the most spontaneous, most strikingly original temperaments.” One of these is to be found in the broad areas which he reserved for the unadorned surfaces of the door and table, quietly reflecting the heat and brilliant light from outside. The oval or circular table carries three simple plates with small fruit and a translucent cup. There is nothing else in the area, which covers a full quarter of the lower part of the picture, except the soft bluish haze enveloping the tablecloth, which makes the table seem to hover, as if given a humming life of its own by the magic of the summer light. The contours of the table are also irregular, as though strict conformity to the actual shape was hardly of importance. John Rewald, in his book, Pierre Bonnard,
published in connection with The Museum of Modern Art's and the Cleveland Museum of Art's retrospective Bonnard exhibition of 1948, speaks of the sometimes distorted or exaggerated attitudes of Bonnard's models, and explains that he did this “in order to emphasize more explicitly the smoothness and balance of a movement or gesture. He knew how to eliminate in order to insist on the particular, to dissolve outlines so that he might achieve volume through color.” This large table, with its dipping contours and squarish plates is a case in point. And the large, single shape to which he applies it is not only evidence of his mastery of the means of revealing particular character but of a new ability to make areas without detail or ornament play a pictorial role at once effective in themselves and in increasing the stature of the picture's whole design.In its aspect of solidity and precision of shape and texture the door in the background is almost opposite in treatment. Indeed there is little or nothing in the artist's mature work which is closer to the object not
seen through the atmosphere. It is almost as though Bonnard had introduced it in this manner to accentuate the contrast between the agitated light and flexible forms of nature in the exterior and to anchor the feeling of stillness within the house through a formidable element of fixed stability. Lyrical as was Bonnard's temperament, dedicated as he was to the poetry of the world revealed in light, he never let himself become too removed from the world. And in the extremes of treatment which this picture contains, one senses, as concomitant of one of the grandest advances of his art, a reactive and insistent standing upon the base from which it moved forward.Both in splendors of its artistry and its historical position at the culmination of the French Impressionist tradition, Bonnard's Dining Room in the Country
is, to date, the most important work of Twentieth-Century art to enter the Institute's permanent collection. Standing in the arc of its master's highest achievements, it takes its place among distinguished works by Corot, Boudin, Pissarro, Gauguin, Renoir, Cézanne and Van Gogh, and with them now offers Institute members and visitors the change to trace the full cycle of the development of one of the most important movements in French art of the Post-Renaissance era.Referenced Works of Art
- Dining Room in the Country (detail). The precisely painted door reflects Bonnard's return to drawing about this time to balance his new found enthusiasm for color.
- Dining Room in the Country by Pierre Bonnard (French, 1867-1947), 1913. Oil on canvas, 63” x 80”. The John R. Van Derlip Fund.
- Bonnard's painting fuses exterior and interior in an extended angular view which can be divided into several near-independent compositions.