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Pierre Bonnard: Painting Arcadia

Pierre Bonnard

Painting Arcadia

February 6–May 15, 2016

Rosekrans Court, Special Exhibition Galleries 20B–F

Pierre Bonnard: Painting Arcadia is the first major international presentation of Pierre Bonnard’s work to be mounted on the West Coast in half a century. The exhibition will feature more than 70 works that span the artist’s complete career, from his early Nabi masterpieces, through his experimental photography, to the late interior scenes for which he is best known.

The exhibition celebrates Bonnard (French, 1867–1947) as one of the defining figures of modernism in the transitional period between Impressionism and abstraction. Several themes from Bonnard’s career will emerge, including the artist’s great decorative commissions where the natural world merges with the bright colors and light of the South of France, where windows link interior and exterior spaces, and where intimate scenes disclose unexpected phantasmagorical effects.

Among the many significant paintings on view will be Man and Woman (1900, Musée d’Orsay), in which the artist has depicted his lifelong companion and one of his constant subjects, Marthe de Méligny. Also featured will be such masterpieces as The Boxer (Self-Portrait) (1931, Musée d’Orsay) and The Work Table (1926–1937, National Gallery of Art); and decorative panels and screens, including View from Le Cannet (1927, Musée Bonnard) and Pleasure (1906–1910, Musée d’Orsay).

Pierre Bonnard: Painting Arcadia will offer a fresh interpretation of Bonnard's repertoire, and a reconsideration of the artist as one of the foremost practitioners of modernism.

#Bonnard | @LegionofHonor

About the Artist

Pierre Bonnard self-portraitBorn just outside of Paris in 1867, Pierre Bonnard was the son of a high-ranking bureaucrat in the French War Ministry. In 1887 he enrolled in classes at the Académie Julian in Paris, where he became a student and follower of Paul Gauguin. Gauguin’s teaching inspired a group of young painters known as Les Nabis (after the Hebrew words navi or nabi, meaning prophet), with whom Bonnard joined. By the early years of the twentieth century, the Nabis had disbanded, and for the remainder of his career, Bonnard resisted affiliation with any particular school. Instead, he alternated between the themes and techniques of the Impressionists and the abstract visual modes of modernism.

Bonnard worked in many genres and techniques, including painting, drawing and photography. From the domestic and urban scenes of his early Nabi period to the great elegies of the twentieth century, Bonnard’s output is grounded in a modernity that was transformed by his knowledge of works from other cultures, including Japanese woodblock prints and Mediterranean mosaics.

Selected Works

Pierre Bonnard, “Woman with Cat”, or “The Demanding Cat”, ca. 1912. Oil on canvas. Musée d'Orsay, Paris; Baroness Eva Gebhard-Gourgaud Bequest, 1965, RF 1977-84
Pierre Bonnard, “The Dressing Table”, 1908. Oil on canvas. Musée d'Orsay, Paris; Mr. and Mrs. Frédéric Lung Bequest, 1961, RF 1977-86
Pierre Bonnard, “House among the Trees (“My Caravan” at Vernonnet)”, ca. 1918. Oil on canvas. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Pierre Bonnard, “Woman in Checkered Dress”, 1890–1891. Distemper on paper mounted on canvas. Musée d'Orsay, Paris; accepted by the State in place of payment of inheritance tax by Florence Gould, 1984, RF 159–162
Pierre Bonnard, “Dancers”, ca. 1896. Oil on cardboard. Musée d'Orsay, Paris; acquired in 2013, RF 2013-20
Pierre Bonnard, “The Large Garden”, 1895. Oil on canvas. Musée d'Orsay, Paris; gift of Jean-Claude Bellier in memory of his father, Alphonse Bellier, 1982, RF 1982-58
Pierre Bonnard, “Self-Portrait”, ca. 1904. Oil on canvas. Private collection

Curator Interview

Office hours with Esther Bell, Curator in Charge of European Paintings at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

What should people expect to see when they come into these galleries? Can you give us an overview of the themes?

Right when you walk in, we start with a burst of some of Bonnard’s most playful, inventive work. We’ve devoted the first room to his early paintings, and they’re some of the most exciting and surprising in the show. We see cats and dogs, women in a garden, swirling figures, vibrant colors and patterns.

From there we move on to his depictions of domestic interiors, including some of the works for which Bonnard is best known. He was brilliant at creating relationships between intimate objects and people. In many of these we see his partner, Marthe de Méligny, surrounded by objects of everyday life—vases of flowers or bowls of fruit.

In the next gallery, we have the bathers, another of Bonnard’s well-loved subjects, and after that portraits, and then paintings made in the South of France. Then in the final gallery, we devote the space to the incredibly large decorative paintings of Bonnard’s career, including three from a series commissioned by his lifelong friend and muse Misia Edwards.

These last galleries also include paintings featuring the Arcadia that he found in Paris. In these pictures we can almost hear the sound of laughter, a match lighting a cigarette, footsteps upon the cobblestones—the world moving around Bonnard as he painted.

Is there a painting that surprised you when you first saw it, maybe something that you absolutely wouldn’t want visitors to miss?

We spend so much time looking at images of these paintings, preparing our thoughts and writing about them, but the experience when they come out of the crate is always so much more powerful than you imagine. I would say that about Almond Tree in Bloom. Even though it’s a small-scale painting, the artist’s command of the color and the composition is just remarkable.

It’s one of my favorites, possibly my favorite in the exhibition. It’s a small, intimate picture that Bonnard probably painted while looking right out of his window. We see the light shining upon a tree composed of so many different colors—a sparkling, fleeting moment. It’s as if we’re standing there with him in his studio as he opens the window and looks out onto a spring afternoon.

The “Arcadia” of the exhibition title might not be entirely familiar to all visitors; can you speak a little about what that term means in this context?

Arcadia is a beautiful place. It’s filled with warmth, with laughter, with flowering trees, with love. And of course Arcadia is unattainable; it does not exist. And even in Arcadia death is inescapable. So the point is that even though so many of these pictures are upon first sight really beautiful—the light is creating a warm haze, we can hear the wine glasses clinking—there’s always an undercurrent of sadness and melancholy, because these beautiful moments do not last.

Bonnard led a privileged life—he had many homes, many lovers; he was a successful painter—but his life was not uncomplicated. He had people in his life that committed suicide, those that were plagued with illness, and he outlived his great love. There were complications. This is how all of our lives are. Life is a challenge for all of us. It’s unpredictable—and that’s kind of the joy.

Exhibition Catalogue

This exhibition is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Musée d'Orsay, Paris, and the Fundación MAPFRE, Madrid. Presenting Sponsors: the William K. Bowes, Jr. Foundation, Cynthia Fry Gunn and John A. Gunn, the San Francisco Auxiliary of the Fine Arts Museums, and Diane B. Wilsey. Curator’s Circle: the Ray and Dagmar Dolby Family Fund and the Clare C. McEvoy Charitable Remainder Unitrust and Jay D. McEvoy Trust. Benefactor’s Circle: Lucinda B. Watson.  Patron’s Circle: George and Marie Hecksher, and David A. Wollenberg.

The catalogue is published with the assistance of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Endowment for Publications. 

This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.