Artists & Designers

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947)

A leading member of the group of avant-garde artists who called themselves the Nabis, Pierre Bonnard worked in a broad range of media and styles. In addition to his primary work as a painter, he was among the most inventive draftsmen and lithographers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Bonnard was born in 1867 in Fontanay-aux-Roses, a suburb of Paris. He received a classical education with instruction in philosophy, literature, and Greek culture. At his father's insistence, he initially prepared for a law career. While studying law, he enrolled in painting classes at the Académie Julian where he met Paul Sérusier, Maurice Denis, Paul Ranson, and later, Aristide Maillol, Edouard Vuillard, Félix Vallotton, Ker-Xavier Roussel, and Armand Seguin. Sérusier and Denis, had studied at Pont-Aven with Paul Gauguin. They organized a circle of like-minded artists into a group that called themselves the "Nabis'" after the Hebrew word for prophet. Although he participated in the first Nabis Exhibition in 1892, Bonnard did not share his friend's enthusiasm for Symbolist theories.

During the 1890s, his graphic work was characterized by an energetic linear style that reflected the contemporary art nouveau aesthetic and the profound influence of Japanese prints. Between 1891 and 1905 Bonnard was very active as a decorator, a graphic artist, and a designer. Bonnard achieved his first commercial success through the sale of a poster to a French champagne company and continued to make his living early in his career through the production of posters and lithographs, the illustration of books, and an occasional design commission from Louis Comfort Tiffany among others. His gift for stage decor and decorative art developed while working on the first staging of Ubu-Roi at the Théâtre de L'Oeuvre, Paris in 1896. In 1898 Bonnard's painting style had changed from the distinct outlines and flat color areas of his earlier work to an emphasis on form-enveloping atmosphere, achieved with vibrant brushstrokes. His deliberately less decorative landscapes, townscapes, and interiors following 1910 reflect his serious appraisal of the late work of Claude Monet. In 1915 Bonnard felt it was necessary to give more attention to form and composition, elements he thought he had ignored in his obsession with color. The great series of nudes and bath scenes of the following years contain precise observation of light values, simplicity of composition, rich variety of pattern and paint texture, as well as the sensuality of sumptuous color relationships. In his late work the all-over surface quality was even more intensified. Bonnard was able to learn from new experiments going on around him, adapting and refining them through his personal style.

Bonnard worked on his paintings slowly, often going back and adding or subtracting passages. His technique was one of total absorption and prolonged interplay with a subject. Nothing was based on immediate, direct observation, as he proceeded instead from subjective responses filtered through memories and personal sensation. In replicating his own state of mind, he approached on canvas a poetic stream of consciousness that can be likened to the literary enterprise of Marcel Proust. Thus, reality takes on a different dimension, and pleasure acquires somber reverberation. It is Bonnard's ability to communicate a full range of feeling that gives his later work such lasting power.

Adapted from

  • Gail Davitt, DMA unpublished material, 1987.

  • Heather MacDonald, "Pierre Bonnard [three illustration studies]," in Mind's Eye: Masterworks on Paper from David to Cézanne, eds. Olivier Meslay and William B. Jordan (Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven, NJ: Yale University Press, 2014), 178-179.

  • Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas Museum of Art Bulletin (Fall 1984), 7.

  • Steven A. Nash, "Bonnard's Joyous Exploration of Color," in Dallas Museum of Art Bulletin (Fall 1984), 9.

Fun Facts

After his military service, Pierre Bonnard shared a studio in Paris with Maurice Denis and Edouard Vuillard.

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