Pierre Bonnard: Painting Arcadia

An easy-on-the-eyes show at the Legion of Honor

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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More than 70 works by the illustrious French post-impressionist artist, Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), now on exhibit at the Legion of Honor Museum, provide a comprehensive view of the artist’s legacy built over his long and distinguished career. It’s an excellent opportunity to see the best of Bonnard in a show assembled by the most important repository of French 19th and 20th century art –– Paris’ renowned Musée d’Orsay. And San Francisco is its only U.S. venue.


Bonnard’s oeuvre is known for its vibrant use of color, prettiness and amiability. For that reason some critics consider his efforts less weighty and worthy than art by angry modern artists. Yet, through this exhibit, one can see the full extent of Bonnard’s talent and style, which bridged impressionism and modernism. The artist concentrated on domestic scenes, self-portraits, images of his models, wife and family, sunlit interiors and landscapes, although for commission he completed large allegorical paintings and decorative panels.


Some of his paintings have a touch of wit, irony or poetic allusion. Many have a tinge of melancholy beneath the surface. Bonnard would do a sketch or take a photograph and then complete the finished product from his preliminary drawing or photo. He liked to paint from unusual perspectives. His perspective tricks and his odd-shaped unfinished faces and figures lend his work a singular creativity.


Bonnard’s artistry evolved during his lifetime. As a young artist, Bonnard, like many Impressionists, was intrigued with Japanese prints. Then in the 1890s, with Maurice Denis and Édouard Vuillard, he began a painting school known as the Nabis (prophets). Their work resembled the Art Nouveau school, which was decorative and subdued in color. It used natural themes and graphics. After the break-up of the Nabis, Bonnard went his own way, through a meditative period during World War I, to more intimate paintings that are represented by color–saturated still-lifes, nudes and bath scenes, many of his muse and wife, Marthe. My favorite of these is “Nude in an Interior” (1912-1914) because of its tenderness, subtlety and use of color and pattern.

Bonnard began spending time in the South of France in 1910, and eventually bought a small house in Le Cannet, near Cannes. There he discovered verdant gardens bathed in gorgeous sunlit shades. “Path to Le Cannet” (1945), with traces of ultra-violet in the sky, and the large oil on canvas, the “View of Le Cannet” (1927) are prime examples of why the artist is regarded as one of the best colorists of his era.

Bonnard painted large Arcadian-style paintings and large-sized decorative panels when commissioned to do so. Although I admire the two large panels of Place Clichy (1912), the subject matter of the Arcadian paintings seem more forced and artificial than his characteristic colorful and charming portraits, sunlit domestic interiors, landscapes and still lifes.

Bonnard had a successful career as a painter. His small and appealing last painting, “The Almond Tree in Blossom” was completed one week before he died at Le Cannet at 80 years of age.


“Pierre Bonnard: Painting Arcadia” is an accessible, colorful and charming exhibition, well worth a trip to the lovely Beaux Arts Legion of Honor overlooking the ocean with views of the Golden Gate Bridge.




© Emily S. Mendel 2016     All Rights Reserved




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