A renowned painter, illustrator, lithographer, photographer, sculptor and etcher, Pierre Eugène Frédéric Bonnard’s career lasted sixty years. Classified by some as a leader of the French "Intimiste" school of painting, Bonnard was not really a part of any school in the narrative of the history of art. His education included studying both art and law. After studying briefly at École des Arts Décoratifs, he enrolled in law school in Paris in 1885. Two years later he entered the Académie Julian to study art, where he meet Maurice Denis (1870-1943), Henri-Gabriel Ibels (1867-1936), Paul Ranson (1862-1909) and Paul Sérusier (1864-1927), all of whom would remain friends. He also was admitted to the painting school of École des Beaux-Arts. He graduated from law school in 1888 and found work in a government records office. That year, Sérusier showed his friends Bonnard, Denis, Ibels and Ranson a landscape he had painted in Brittany under Paul Gaugin’s (1843-1903) supervision and with them formed a group to pursue Gauguin’s ideas about painting; they called themselves Les Nabis (after the Hebrew word for “prophet”). In 1889 Bonnard met Ker-Xavier Roussel (1867-1944) and Édouard Vuillard (1868-1940), who would become life-long friends, and saw Gauguin’s work exhibited at the Café Volpini in June. Gauguin and Japanese prints would be major influences in Bonnard’s art. In a life-changing event that December, Bonnard won first prize in a poster competition with his lithographic poster France-Champagne (Bouvet 1), winning 100 francs, which led him to abandon the law and pursue an artistic career. Confirming his new career choice, Bonnard rented a studio with Vuillard and Denis. In March 1891, Bonnard’s France-Champagne poster was displayed throughout Paris to critical acclaim. Also in March, Bonnard exhibited for the first time in the Salon des Indépendants, showing five paintings and four decorative panels, Femmes au jardin (Women in the Garden, 1891, Dauberville 1716, Paris: Musée d’Orsay); he would exhibit in subsequent Salons des Indépendants until 1927. And in December he participated in the first group show by the Nabis at the Barc de Boutteville gallery; shows in this gallery continued until 1896. Humor allied with keen observation of Parisian life distinguished his work. During the 1890s Bonnard was perhaps better known as a printmaker than a painter; he created over 250 lithographs between 1889 and 1902. He was an active illustrator of music, books and journals, particularly La Revue blanche (from 1893); he and the Nabis became close friends with the Natanson brothers, the editors of that journal. His 1894 poster for La Revue blanche (Bouvet 30) is among his best-known works. One of the goals of Bonnard and the Nabis was to reunite fine arts and decorative arts. His Femmes au jardin panels were the first of many such decorations for the homes and public spaces created by Bonnard over his career. Bonnard took up photography in the 1890s. His surviving photographs show the same intimiste sensibility appearing in his paintings. Bonnard’s first one-man show was at the Galerie Durand-Ruel in 1896. He exhibited with other Nabis at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in 1900; the gallery purchased one of his paintings, and represented Bonnard thereafter. A very private individual, Bonnard turned down membership in the Legion of Honor in 1912 (as did Roussel and Vuillard). He had achieved international success by 1920. His works were shown in exhibitions in in cities throughout Europe and North America during the 1920s and 1930s. Bonnard’s personal life was marked by his long relationship with Maria Boursin (1869-1942), who went by the name Marthe de Mélighy. After they met in 1893, she became Bonnard’s model and living companion; he married her in 1925 after living with her for thirty years. His travels included trips around Europe, North Africa and the United States. In 1925 he bought a house in Le Cannet, in the hills north of Cannes, which he named “Le Bosquet” (The Grove). He lived there for the rest of his life, although he kept an apartment and studio in Paris, and often spent time on the Atlantic coast near Bordeaux and at Deauville. In 1946 he consented to a large retrospective exhibition of his work celebrating his 80th birthday, organized by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, but did not live to see it. He died January 23, 1947 at Le Cannet. The exhibition was held in 1948. (TNB 3/2011) Selected Bibliography: Groom, Gloria, et al. Beyond the Easel. Decorative Painting by Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis and Roussel. Exhibition catalog. Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001. Ives, Colta Feller, Helen Giambruni and Sasha M. Newman. Pierre Bonnard, The Graphic Work. Exhibition Catalog. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art; New York: H. N. Abrams, 1989. Turner, Elizabeth Hutton, with Nancy Coleman Wolsk, Ursula Perucchi-Petri, Elsa M Smithgall and Lisa Lipinski. Pierre Bonnard: Early and Late. London: Philip Wilson Publishers; Washington, D.C.: Phillips Collection, 2002.
© Pierre Bonnard/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York