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Pierre Bonnard - Matin bleu ou Petite rivière

Pierre Bonnard

Matin bleu ou Petite rivière

Oil on canvas: 20.9(h) x 28.7(w) in / 53(h) x 73(w) cm
Signed lower left: Bonnard

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Fontenay-aux-Roses 1867-1947 Cannet, Alpes-Maritimes

Ref: BT 246


Matin bleu ou Petite rivière


Signed lower left: Bonnard

Oil on canvas: 20 7/8 x 28 ¾ in / 53 x 73 cm

Frame size: 26 x 34 in / 66 x 86.4 cm

Painted in 1927





Bernheim-Jeune, Paris, acquired from the artist in 1927;

Dudensing Collection, Paris and New York, acquired from Bernheim-Jeune

Laughlin Phillips (1924-2010), Washington, DC;

by descent to EH Phillips

Private collection, UK



Northampton, MA, Smith College Museum of Art/Chicago, Art Institute of Chicago, Entering the Twentieth Century: Oil, Watercolors and Drawings, 1932-33




Jean and Henry Dauberville, Bonnard. Catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre peint, Paris 1973, vol III, p.298, no.1367, illus.; Bernheim-Jeune photograph no.6278



In 1912 Pierre Bonnard bought a house, which he named Ma Roulotte (My Caravan), at Vernonnet on the Seine. It was a few miles from Giverny, where Monet had lived since 1883; the artists became good friends. From 1909 Bonnard had also discovered the Côte d’Azur, visiting every year and acquiring a home at Le Cannet, above Cannes, in 1926. His landscapes are a delightful alternation between the light of the Midi and the lush, green, rain-drenched Seine valley, or sometimes a dreamlike entwinement of the two.


Matin bleu, 1927, is close in spirit to La Seine à Vernon or La risée sur la rivière (private collection)[1], also painted in 1927 and part of a series of landscapes which Bonnard had begun at Le Vernonnet the previous year. Matin bleu shows the same interest in the textures of the water as La Seine à Vernon, with the deeper part of the channel being differentiated from the smoother waters near the bank. In Matin bleu, the smoother water is constructed from blended strokes of pale mauve, violet and eau-de-nil, while the deeper water is conveyed by agitated, oval strokes of darker purple, midnight blue and hints of green. The sparkling, snakelike energy of the river is echoed in the horizontal row of trees on the far bank, which is likewise constructed from juxtapositions of green and purple-blue.


While being sensitive to topography, Bonnard was interested in the abstract patterns of the landscape. As Nicholas Watkins comments, Bonnard was concerned to ‘integrate form and structure with an overall atmosphere of light’; he also saw a painting as ‘a decorative object in its own right’[2]. Bonnard described painting as ‘a sequence of marks which join together and end up forming the object, the fragment over which the eye wanders without a hitch’[3]. In Matin bleu, the emerald green shadow of the tree at foreground left provides the bridge which leads the eye to the riverbank. The plant at foreground right throws a network of stalks over the river, leading the gaze towards the strongly-lit and strongly-shadowed boats on the far bank.


Unlike the Impressionists, Bonnard did not paint his landscapes in front of the motif. He preferred to make small drawings and colour notes on the spot, which he translated into oil paintings in his studio. His landscapes are imbued with memory and emotion as well as the transient appearance of nature. He expressed his philosophy to Matisse in 1940: ‘During my morning walks I amuse myself by defining different conceptions of landscape – landscape as “space”, intimate landscape, decorative landscape, etc. But as for vision, I see things differently every day, the sky, objects, everything changes continually, you can drown in it. But that’s what brings life’[4].


This painting comes from the collection of Laughlin Phillips (1924-2010), son of Duncan and Marjorie Phillips, who amassed the largest collection of works by Bonnard in America between 1925 and 1954. Duncan Phillips (1886-1966), heir to a Pittsburgh banking and steel fortune, was an art critic who founded the Phillips Memorial Collection in Washington DC to honour his father and brother. Phillips believed in the vital connection between Old Masters and Modernism, hanging El Greco, Goya and Manet alongside Georgia O’Keeffe and Nicolas de Staël: this eclectic philosophy is still practised to great effect by The Phillips Collection today. Duncan Phillips corresponded with Bonnard for twenty years and included his work in the Phillips Memorial Gallery’s Tri-Unit Exhibition of Paintings and Sculpture in 1927, the year that Matin bleu was painted. He wrote of Bonnard in the catalogue: ‘Nature is never too sacred for Bonnard to rearrange, but ever a source-book for this playboy of pictorial design….It is tempting also to see in Bonnard an affinity to the magical Debussy. These two masters of nuance are corresponding links between the old and the new in music and painting’[5].


Laughlin Phillips, the son of Duncan and Marjorie (who was herself an artist), took over the directorship of The Phillips Collection in 1979, after a career with the CIA and ownership of the Washingtonian magazine. Bonnard’s Matin bleu descended in his family.




Fontenay-aux-Roses 1867-1947 Cannet, Alpes-Maritimes


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.   





[1] 19 ¾ x 26 7/8 in / 50.2 x 68.3 cm; Dauberville, op. cit., vol. III, p.297, no.1366. Sold at Christie’s London, 4th February 2015, lot 29.

[2] Nicholas Watkins, Bonnard, London 1994, p.134.

[3] Watkins, op. cit., p.134.

[4] Quoted in Canberra, National Gallery of Australia/Brisbane, Queensland Art Gallery, Pierre Bonnard: Observing Nature, 2003, exh. cat. ed. Jörg Zutter, p.61.

[5] Quoted in Washington DC, The Phillips Collection/Denver Art Gallery, Pierre Bonnard Early and Late, 2003, exh. cat. by Elizabeth Hutton Turner, p.41.

Other Works By
Pierre Bonnard:

Pierre Bonnard - Paysage d'automne (environs de Vernon) Pierre Bonnard - Matinée à Arcachon