Born in a Paris suburb in 1867, Pierre Bonnard was the son of a bureau chief in the Ministry of War who encouraged his son to pursue a classical education followed by a career as a barrister. In 1885 Bonnard enrolled in law school and received his degree in 1888. Throughout his law studies he attended art classes at the Académie Julian and was accepted at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. It was during this period that he met a remarkable group of young artists, including Paul Sérusier, Maurice Denis and Edouard Vuillard, who became lifelong friends.
Bonnard soon developed a strong bond with Vuillard and readily joined the group of artists, led by Sérusier, who called themselved the Nabis (‘prophets’ in Hebrew), who were particularly influenced by Paul Gauguin and whose main aim was to develop the ideals of Impressionism. The group caused considerable outrage in Paris and during the Exposition Universelle in 1889 they controversially showed their work at the exhibition organised by Gauguin at the Café Volpini near the newly erected Eiffel Tower.
By the age of twenty-two Bonnard was still a practising lawyer and by the end of 1889 became a licensed attorney. He soon became disillusioned by his daily routine in the Paris law courts and in 1891, after receiving one hundred francs from France-Champagne for a poster commission, Bonnard chose to give up law completely to concentrate on his artistic career. That same year he submitted his first entries to the Salon des Indépendants which were well received by the critics; he continued to be an active and committed member of the Nabis. Bonnard’s early works have a clear palette and bold execution which are clearly influenced by the Symbolist poetry of Mallarmé and the teachings of Gauguin and Sérusier.
In 1893 Bonnard met his lifelong companion, the beautiful Marie Boursin, whom he encountered on the boulevard Haussmann in Paris when she introduced herself as sixteen-year-old Marthe de Méligny, the daughter of aristocratic Italian parents. It was not until after their marriage some thirty years later that Bonnard discovered her real identity: she was a farmer’s daughter from the Midi and had been twenty-four at their first meeting. Described as ‘voluptuous’ and ‘almost risqué’, Marthe became central to Bonnard’s work, appearing in one hundred and fifty paintings and over seven hundred sketches.
By 1900 Bonnard had been working with the Nabis for nearly a decade and felt that he needed more independence to develop his personal style. He began to travel extensively within France and abroad, visiting Belgium and Holland in 1907, Italy in 1910 and 1922, England, Spain, Algeria, Tunisia and America in 1926, widening his experience and expanding his horizons. In 1909 he joined Henri Matisse in a painting expedition to the South of France which had a remarkable effect on the future of his work. Seduced by the bright sunlight and bold colours of the Mediterranean, he discovered an overwhelming passion for colour which from this moment became of primary importance in his art. In 1912 Bonnard bought a house in Vernon in the Eure region, near Monet’s beloved Giverny, where he and Marthe lived most of the year, only escaping to the warmth of the Côte d’Azur in winter. Bonnard continued to paint sunlit interiors peopled by his family and friends and his works developed into intimate portrayals of his personal life. In 1931 he settled permanently in the villa at Le Cannet, which he had purchased in 1926. This became the subject of his glorious golden canvases and he continued to paint there until his death in 1947.
The work of Pierre Bonnard is represented in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the J Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; the Pushkin Museum, Moscow; the Hermitage, St Petersberg; Tate Modern and the National Gallery, London; the Kunsthaus, Zurich and Neue Pinakothek, Munich.