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Dismissed for decades, now Pierre Bonnard takes centre stage

This article is over 5 years, 3 months old
The French painter is typecast as being a bit lightweight, but a new exhibition at Tate Britain reveals a melancholy and tender artist, writes Ben Windsor
Issue 2639
Pierre Bonnard’s The Studio with Mimosa (1939-46)

Pierre Bonnard’s The Studio with Mimosa (1939-46)

The Tate Modern is staging the first major show of French painter Pierre Bonnard’s work in Britain for 20 years.

It’s on a grand scale with more than a hundred paintings spread over thirteen rooms.

Bonnard polarises opinion, which is surprising for a painter who is best known for images of cosy ­domesticity, infused with colour and light.

Fellow Painter Henri Matisse praised him as “a great artist for our time” whereas Pablo Picasso couldn’t stand him.

Many in the industry considered him too facile, too eager to please.

He even tends to get overlooked by official art histories.

But because he kept ploughing his own furrow and showed little desire to pursue the latest artistic fashions, he became hard to categorise and easy to neglect.

This was especially true in the US, where a definition of modern art was being developed in the mid-20th century that would exclude Bonnard.


Bonnard was born in 1867 shortly before the Franco-Prussian war—and the Paris Commune—and was raised in a suburb of Paris close to Versailles.

His father was a prominent official in the French ministry of war. He was keen for Bonnard to become a lawyer, but didn’t seem too upset when he took a more bohemian path.

The curators of the Tate Modern’s exhibition say they’re aiming to subvert our preconceptions about this artist “on the periphery of the canon, who we think we know”.

In many ways they achieve this admirably.

They’ve gathered works from across five decades, which are testament to both Bonnard’s desire to experiment and his idiosyncratic vision. Wandering around, it also becomes clear that his paintings are a tender—and increasingly melancholy—record of a 50 year love affair with his working class partner, Marthe de Meligny.

The common notion of Bonnard as a “painter of happiness” doesn’t survive a close viewing of his work. Bonnard’s own response to the charge was to observe, “He who sings is not always happy”.

Despite the beauty of his paintings and their depiction of the French middle classes, they are often suffused with sadness and occasionally anguish.

This is most marked in the late self portraits.

Photography clearly had a great influence. Some of his preparatory photos are on display here, but they are so tiny you’ll need a magnifying glass to see much in them.

From this new medium he assimilated a great deal—the experimental compositions, the cropping, the blurred motion, the capture of ­fleeting poses and transient expressions.


His figures don’t seem to be posing at all—they’re just absorbed in their regular activities.

His technique liberates them from the need to stand, sit or lay rigid for hours on end.

Bonnard had a very particular way of working—preferring to do so from memory, from rough sketches, photos, and notes.

He was keen not to be distracted by the details.

This approach lends his work great emotive power. And the haziness of the paintings means they take a while to decipher.

As you observe them they slowly unfurl, revealing surprises, jokes—and apparitions.

Pierre Bonnard—the colour of memory Tate Modern 
Until 6 May
Tickets £18/£17

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