Artiste incroyable & weenie dog lover, Pierre Bonnard

Monsieur Bonnard

“monsieur Bonnard et son chien, Poucette” by Robert Leedy, watercolor on Fabriano Artistico 140 lb. Cold Press paper, 16 3/4″ x 17 1/2″

Last week, I gave my watercolor students a different assignment: I asked them to bring in old family photos, preferably of the black & white era. “Look for Model-T’s, big hats, washboards, and Studebaker’s,” I told them. We would edit, recompose any poor snapshot compositions, and create watercolor paintings from the subject. I got the idea from a Charles Reid workshop several years ago. I thought this project might be a nice way to create unique holiday gifts…

I did a demo for the class – only I didn’t use a family photo – I used a photo of French artist, Pierre Bonnard, taken probably in the 1940’s. I originally told the class it was my Uncle Charlie and his dog Sparky. When it was obvious no one doubted my story, I confessed that it was actually Pierre Bonnard, the famous painter – one of my very favorites from the early 20th century.

Pierre Bonnard (b. 1867, d.1947) was associated with the Post Impressionist group of painters called “les Nabis”. His paintings are best known for their intense color and subject matter – usually that of his wife, Marthe, and usually of her in the bathtub. She was first his model and companion. Twenty five years into their relationship, he married her. “I think after 25 years of living together,” one of my students laughed, “I would be locking the bathroom door.” Bonnard also painted Marthe in the kitchen, feeding the cat, working in the garden, sitting before her vanity, and generally creeping around the house. Most of Pierre Bonnard’s paintings represent his domestic life and most of the paintings are interiors.

The painting I did was a lot of fun. Inventing color as you go keeps you on your toes. Of course, we know the Dachshund is brownish red. I imagined what the color of a man’s suit from the 30’s and 40’s would be; as for the building, Bonnard lived in a cottage not far from Cannes in the South of France and I envisioned ochre walls and green shutters.  My sense of humor was out of hand that day: As I dropped a specific green into a wash of French Ultramarine Blue, a student asked me what color the green was:

“South of France Window Shutter Green.”

“Oh really? Where did you find that?”

I didn’t want to create a false run on SFWS Green in the local art retailers’ stores so, I admitted my little joke and gave the student the correct response: Cobalt Green.

The shadows on Monsieur Bonnard’s jacket were very interesting and I played them up and accentuated the negative spaces created by them with bright oranges and yellows. When it came to dealing with the window behind him, I chose to echo the same colors contrasted against stark complementary colors that created the trellis.

For me, one of the endearing things about the photo was the fact that Bonnard loved Dachshunds and they appear frequently in his paintings. I am also a Dachshund lover. After a little research, I made an educated guess that this one’s name was ‘Poucette’ which is a translation for ‘Thumbelina’. The dog in my painting has multiple glazes of reds and browns which give his coat a rich feel.

Though his paintings sold very well during his lifespan, Bonnard was somewhat ignored by critics and the art world throughout the larger art movements of the early 20th century. Pablo Picasso never seemed to hold back on criticism of the artist, calling his paintings a “pot-pourri of indecision”. He is “a piddler”, Picasso complains, “you never once get the big clash of the cymbals.” Picasso’s worst jab: “He’s not really a modern painter.”

I strongly feel Pierre Bonnard’s paintings must be experienced in person. I  studied Bonnard in Art History classes years earlier; however, the first Bonnard I saw up close was “la Palme” (painted in 1926) at the Phillips Collection in Washington DC. At roughly 45″ x 58″, it was breathtaking. The scale of the painting, the color, the incredible light, the ghost-like figure…very impressive. Up close to Bonnard’s paintings, I am so enthralled with the paint application and all of the color…that subject matter seems to be of little importance. It’s as though you get a sense these are blood ancestors of modern abstract paintings which would follow years later. I saw a definite link to Richard Diebenkorn among others. Bonnard bit off a piece of Modernism that Picasso never happened upon to chew. Bonnard, in retrospect, is much more relevant as an artist today than during his lifetime. Frequent, major exhibitions of his work since his death underscore this.

Watch an interesting video of Dita Amory, Curator for The Metropolitan Museum of Art, giving a talk on Bonnard’s work during a 2009 exhibition.

PURCHASE  the painting, “monsieur Bonnard et son chien, Poucette”


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