Pierre Bonnard is one of the world’s greatest Post-Impressionists, known for his unmatched ability to bring a painting to life through remarkable colors and superior compositions. As a child, Bonnard showed both a talent and interest in art. While beginning his professional career as a lawyer, he started attending the Académie Julien, the now famed school that drew artists from across the globe, where he devoted himself to refining his artistic skill. He spent a bit too much time in the studio, however, because in 1888 he failed his final law exam and realized art was his only viable career choice.
Bonnard did not have to wait long for success; 1891 was a monumental year that thrust him into the spotlight. His first work debuted at the annual exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants alongside the famed Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. Later that same year, Bonnard began an association with the renowned French art magazine La Revue Blanche, for which he and Édouard Vuillard designed a featured piece. Bonnard finished 1891 with his work displayed at the notable art gallery Le Barc de Boutteville. By the end of 1891, the art world had proclaimed that Bonnard belonged among the greats.
With like-minded artists Vuillard and Maurice Denis, both colleagues from Académie Julien, Bonnard helped form the influential Les Nabis artistic movement which emphasized the use of color and found inspiration in Symbolist poetry and Japanese art. This group proved to be a key link in the transition from Impressionism to abstraction.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Bonnard painted from memory. When speaking about his painting Landscape in Normandy, he stated, "I have all my subjects to hand. I go back and look at them. I take notes. Then I go home. And before I start painting I reflect, I dream." This dream-like inspiration is reflected through his use of small brush marks to create images full of brilliant color. His compositions, reflections of his personal life, often feature sunny interiors and gardens populated with friends and family members. Each of his works is complex and tells stories that were natural observations from Bonnard’s daily life. Later called an “Intimist,” reflecting the popular intimacy of the scene he depicted, his wife Marthe was his primary subject over the course of several decades. Not confined to observational intimacy, however, Bonnard also painted self-portraits, landscapes, street scenes, and many still lifes depicting flowers and fruit.
Seldom satisfied, Bonnard liked to repeatedly retouch his work, often many years after their completion. Reportedly during his visits to the Luxembourg Museum in Paris, where one of his own paintings hung, he sneakily would take out a small paint-box and add a few careful touches.
Although he was a quiet man who purposefully avoided public attention, Bonnard sold many paintings in his lifetime, was admired by many and formed friendships with art history greats, including Henri Matisse and Toulouse-Lautrec. Today, Bonnard is a recognized master of the Post-Impressionist movement and his work is held in major museums around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Tate Modern, the Centre Pompidou, the Museum of Modern Art (New York) and the Art Institute of Chicago, among others. Inspiring artists of all sorts, Bonnard is a main character in the 2005 Booker Prize-winning novel, The Sea by John Banville. In the novel, the protagonist and art historian Max Morden is writing a book about Bonnard and discusses the painter's life, work and legacy.
Matisse famously said, "I maintain that Bonnard is a great artist for our time and, naturally, for posterity." History has proven Matisse correct; Bonnard continues to inspire for generations.