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.