Painted in 1913 long after the height of the Impressionist movement, Dining Room in The Country
reveals Bonnard’s continuation of the Impressionists’ methods of painting light and color through broken brushwork. Bonnard was highly influenced as well by Japanese prints and the art of Gauguin. Through his thorough knowledge and assimilation of the art of his time, Bonnard became a great independent French master, presenting, in this work, the warmth and stillness of a summer afternoon and the most pleasurable feelings of privacy and intimacy.
THE BEGINNINGS OF MODERNISM
Toward the end of the 19th century, artists continued the search that had begun much earlier in the century for new forms and new content in painting. At the heart of most art movements was the question, "What is a work of art?" The nature of art was constantly redefined by each new group of artists that emerged. Once the Impressionists gave priority to light and color sensation over subject matter, painting ceased to be solely an imitation of nature. In the view of some scholars, this marked the end of the tradition of Renaissance illusionism and the beginning of modernism.
THE REJECTION OF IMPRESSIONISM
However, many artists in the post-Impressionist era rejected the achievements of the Impressionists. They believed that by dissolving subjects in the iridescence of light and color, the Impressionists had sacrificed structure. Although Pierre Bonnard called himself "the last of the French Impressionists," his rejection of the direct observation of nature which was so important to the Impressionists is clear in his remark of 1943:
"The presence of the object . . . is very disturbing to the painter at the time he is painting. Since the starting point of a picture is an idea, if the object is there at the moment he is working, the artist is always in danger of allowing himself to be distracted by the direct and immediate vision, and to lose the primary idea on the way."1
GAUGUIN AND THE SYMBOLISTS
The work of Gauguin was of tremendous influence on Bonnard and other artists in this transitional period. Gauguin’s theory that painting was a synthesis of remembered experience rather than immediate perceptual experience (i.e., the Impressionist theory) had a profound impact on his followers. This notion, adopted by the Symbolists, further asserted that a work of art is ultimately a consequence of the emotions, specifically of the inner spirit of the artist.
The Nabis, with whom Bonnard was affiliated, adopted many of the theories and stylistic traits of Gauguin and the Symbolists, turning the canvas into a flat two-dimensional design with broad areas of unmodulated color. Bonnard’s nickname in the group was "the very Japanese Nabi" because of his interest in calligraphy and Japanese prints. The Nabis’ aesthetic theory gave a new definition of painting—"Remember that a picture, before being a warhorse, a nude, or any other anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors arranged in a certain order."2
Bonnard was profoundly influenced by the Nabis’ reliance on the medium itself to express feelings and emotions through color, line, shape, and texture. The Nabis created a decorative art which contributed to the development of nonrepresentational art.
As a movement, the Nabis diverged on separate paths by 1898. At this time, Bonnard assimilated the technical means of the Impressionists. This direction was strengthened in 1912 by the influence of Monet and Renoir. Bonnard’s colors changed from opaque to transparent, the pigment took on a life of its own in each brushstroke, and there was a new application of atmospheric values. His painting is related to that of the Impressionists, but more as a continuation of their method of painting light and color through broken brushwork than as a conscious effort to extend their programs.
Dining Room in the Country
, painted at the height of Pierre Bonnard’s Impressionist influence, is one of his most important paintings. It was executed the year after he purchased a country home at Vernonette, a tiny village on the Seine between Paris and Rouen. The subject is the dining room and garden of the country home that he named Ma Roulette
, meaning My Gypsy Caravan. The scene depicts the type of bourgeois subject that he most preferred. This is a familiar world filled with ordinary events and daily routine. Cats perch on the chairs, a young woman picks flowers in the garden, plates of fruit are on the table, a vase of poppies is on the side table, and Bonnard’s lifelong companion and later wife, Marthe de Meligny quietly leans on the window sill. The dazzling view of the garden lies beyond. The scene is an intimate one that evokes an atmosphere of tranquillity, comfort and pleasure, which is in accord with Bonnard’s artistic temperament.3
While the painting suggests the rapidly executed impression of a specific time and place, it is actually a composite work painted over an extended period of time, based on details of observation and memory. Bonnard was less concerned than the Impressionists with the fleeting effects of atmosphere, but was more focused on the subjective nature of perception. In other words, it is his feelings that were stirred by observing the subject that are the real subject of this painting.
THE WINDOW/ DOOR MOTIF
In this painting, Bonnard explores a favorite theme—the open window and door. This motif enables the artist to capture both the interior and exterior spaces in one scene, and to present a wide variety of light effects, ranging from the softly, shadowed room to the sun-drenched garden. In doing so, he integrates the human environment with the natural world, and the distant scene with the near one. The precisely drawn architectural details of window and door provide the solid structure upon which other elements are dependent.
Bonnard is first and foremost a colorist, and of all the visual elements employed, color is certainly the dominant one in this composition. Few pure colors are present, but rather a great variety of intermediate hues and a wide range of tints. Additionally, Bonnard employs rich combinations of complementary colors to create a luminous surface. The color of every single area is modulated by the light that falls across it. For example, the door progresses from gray-blue in the shadowed area to lime-green in the sunlight. The sky is made of bold, unblended brushstrokes of pink, blue, and yellow. The garden area contains patches of aqua, peach, and tints of green. The girl who picks flowers in the garden is barely distinguishable, because her figure is created by similar tones of color. Behind her, the tree is a bold mixture of gold and green.
Spatially, the composition defies logic by presenting us with multiple points of view. We are invited to enter the scene from the position of the objects rather than our own position as spectator. The tilted table top in the foreground draws us into the picture. The cropping of the table suggests its extension into our space, breaking down the distinction between pictorial space and our space. We understand by looking at the top of the table that we would have to be above it to see this view. Yet, we see the table that is against the wall from the side. Likewise, as we look through the doorway, we simultaneously look down upon the garden and up at the sky. The artist is giving us more than ordinary vision could encompass in a single view.
ANGLE OF VISION
Bonnard also extended the field of vision beyond normal range to an extremely wide angle. We view simultaneously that which is directly before us and that which we see peripherally. By presenting us with this range, Bonnard raises questions about the relationship between vision (i.e., what we experience with our eyes) and reality (i.e., what actually exists). Bonnard believed that multiple-view points were closer to our normal experience of seeing than the single-view point presented by traditional perspective. Multiple view-points in his opinion make the viewer an active participant rather than a detached observer.4
Bonnard’s unorthodox spatial organization may result in part from Japanese influence. As is true of Japanese prints, the painting presents the room from an oblique angle. We are actually looking into the corner of the room, which is behind the door. The architecture of the room divides and organizes the canvas in a sequence of interlocking sections. Through this device, Bonnard interrupts the diagonal lines that would suggest spatial depth so that the distant landscape appears as a flat shape on the picture plane, compressing space and enhancing the sense of intimacy.5
INFLUENCE OF MONET
It is obvious in the subject matter, the iridescent color, and the broken brushwork that Bonnard was heavily influenced at this time by the Impressionists in general and specifically by Monet. Monet lived and worked across the river from Bonnard at Giverny. Like Monet, Bonnard responded to the nuances of atmospheric light, seeking not to reproduce nature, but to create visual equivalents for his emotions and thoughts through color and light. He devoted his life to finding the means with paint to express his sensations of nature; sensations which he said thrilled and even bewildered him.
Bonnard enriched every inch of the canvas with rich color and sumptuous pattern, reducing the distinction between figure and ground. The painting lacks a specific focal point, with everything being treated as a densely packed continuum with equal emphasis given to all objects. The woman, whose face is cast in shadow, is absorbed in her own thoughts. She seems almost incidental to the scene. This psychological distancing of the figure serves to eliminate narrative, making the woman but one more element of composition, of no more significance than the door or the table.
The inspiration for the non-focal treatment of the canvas may have come from the influence of Monet’s paintings of water lilies. This revolutionary approach to painting prefigures the single image painting of the Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s. Likewise, the scale of the painting and the powerful, expressive use of color anticipate the tendencies carried to further lengths by artists such as Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman.
Unlike the Impressionists, Bonnard did not paint directly from nature, but rather from memory and sketches. A few strokes of the brush while observing a subject served Bonnard as notes for color and organization. Long afterwards, in another environment, his own conception emerged based on the scenes, but changed and modified.
Bonnard worked with "a brush in one hand, a rag in the other." Instead of working at an easel, Bonnard tacked pieces of canvas on the wall. He worked on most paintings for a long time, making constant changes. He was even known on occasion to touch up or add to paintings after they were hanging in museums—a tendency humorously referred to as "Bonnarding" by his colleagues.
As a young man, Bonnard studied art and law concurrently. In 1888, the sale of a lithograph enabled him to enroll at the Academie Julian in Paris. There he came into contact with the Nabis. Much of his own work during this period was done in the print medium, combining what he learned from Japanese prints and from the work of Gauguin.
The tranquil paintings of Bonnard convey little indication of the turbulent years in which he lived as an artist. Living and working in Paris during the first decade of the century, Bonnard was aware of the artistic revolution around him, but his ambitions seemed not to be in accord with the avant-garde.6 He dreamed of an art of everyday life. Bonnard was concerned with feelings, the poetry evoked by the things he knew best.
Always maintaining a home base in Paris, he spent considerable time in country houses throughout France. In 1912, Bonnard purchased the country home that appears in this painting. The location, just across the river from Giverny, enabled him to establish a friendship with Monet. At the same time, he came under the influence of Renoir, and these two artists influenced his style. In 1925, after a 30-year relationship, Bonnard married Marthe de Meligny, who frequently served as his model and is believed to be the woman depicted in this painting.
Bonnard was quietly successful throughout his career, maintaining a steady popularity with critics, the public, and his fellow artists. He tended to restrict his range of subject matter to life in the country and to themes of family intimacy, such as the bedroom, the bath, or the kitchen. Because of the intimate nature of his domestic scenes, Bonnard acquired the name intimiste.
Although Bonnard called himself "the last of the French Impressionists," he cannot be specifically categorized as an Impressionist or linked exclusively with any other art movement of his time. Accepting only those aspects of Impressionism and other styles which served his needs, he became recognized as a great independent French master.
Use on the following tours:
- Visual Elements
- French Art
- 19th- and 20th-Century Art
- City and Country
Compare the Impressionistic qualities of this work with those of Monet’s Grainstack, Sun in the Mist, or Pont Japonais to discuss Monet’s influence on Bonnard.
Compare either of the Gauguins to the Bonnard. In what ways was Bonnard’s use of color (or his decorative style) influenced by Gauguin?
Use this work to demonstrate the influence of Japanese prints on European style, comparing it to an interior Ukiyo-e scene if one is available.
Compare Bonnard’s multiple points of view with those in Braque’s Viaduct at L’Estaque.
Explore how color may be used expressively to create a mood. Compare the Bonnard painting to that of Redon (whom he admired).
On a Visual Elements tour, discuss the artist’s use of light, color, and pattern.
On an Art of France tour, use the painting to illustrate the countryside and lifestyle in this area of France.
Discuss what is modern about modern art. Compare this painting to the Abstract Expressionist work of Guston to discuss the afocal, all-over composition of each, and to see to what lengths this notion has been carried in the 20th century.
- George Heard Hamilton, Painting and Sculpture in Europe: 1880-1940 (New York: Pelican Press, 1989), p. 112.
- George Heard Hamilton, 19th and 20th Century Art, (New York: Harry Abrams, Inc.), pp. 124-126. The aesthetic theory of the Nabis, whose name was derived from a Hebrew word meaning prophets, was written by Maurice Denis and published in 1890 in The Definition of Neotraditionalism. Whatever its original meaning, this statement in the 20th century has been interpreted as meaning that a painting has a reality of its own, not dependent on nature as its source.
- Monroe Wheeler, et al., Bonnard and his Environment, (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1964), p. 18. Bonnard was a quiet man of unobtrusive independence whose life and work embodied the happier aspects of the world. He once remarked, "One is not always transported with joy by what one sees, but a painter must be able to discern some agreeable connection between one thing and another and to find a place for it in his painting. We can abstract beauty out of everything."
- This is akin to Cubist thought, although the manner in which Bonnard achieves the effect is very different than Cubism. Nonetheless, the multiple viewpoints in this painting do bare some relationship to those in Braque's Viaduct at L'Estaque, an early work in the development of the Cubist style.
- The painting may reflect a little explored aspect of Bonnard's career—his involvement in theater as a set painter in the early years of his career. The shallow space of this painting seems to subtly suggest a stage as much as it does an interior, and the landscape we see could be painted flats. Through the compression of space, Bonnard projects the scene forward, again suggesting that we, as viewers, are an extension of the composition.
- In addition to exposure to the work of Gauguin, Japanese prints, and Impressionism, Bonnard also witnessed the birth of Cubism, Fauvism, and Expressionism at the beginning of the 20th century.