Pierre Bonnard Biography

Pierre Bonnard




Painter and printmaker Pierre Bonnard was born in Fonteny-aux-Roses, France, in 1867. Bonnard's formal education began at the Lycee Louis-le-Grand and Lycee Charlemagne, where he showed a strong aptitude and interest in drawing and watercolor painting. However, at his father's insistence, he earned his baccaleareate in the classics and pursued law, receiving his license to practice in 1887. 

While he was earning his law degree, Bonnard enrolled in art courses at the Academie Julian in Paris, and while launching his professional career in 1888 was accepted into the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. It wasn't long before he sold his first commercial art, a poster for France-Champagne. This gave Bonnard the opportunity to show his father that he could support himself, and upon approval, abandoned his pursuit of law and set up a studio in Paris. 

In 1889 he and fellow Academie Julien artists formed the group Les Nabis, who are now considered intrumental in the turning point from Impressionism and academic art styles to Modernism, Symbolism, and other forms of Post-Impressionist styles. The group's doctrine, coined by Maurice Denis, was that painting was "a surface place covered with colors assembled in a certain order," ruffling the feathers of traditionalists who saw art an a symbol of humanity's intellectual and spiritual elevation. In 1891, he participated in his first major exhibition at the Societe des Artistes Independants and received his first commission for graphic design, creating a frontispiece with Edouard Vuillard for La Revue Blanche.

It was in 1893 that Bonnard's interest in printmaking took a new, more dominant role in his career, after he attended an exhibition of the works of master Japanese printmakers Utamaro and Hiroshige. His work thereafter was greatly inspired by the use of unusual visual vantage points and bold, patterned clothes and other textiles portrayed in the works of Japanese and Chinese printmakers. By 1895 he began to work more frequently in lithography, while he also beginning to participate in the newly emerging Art Nouveau movement, creating highly aesthetic works in textile, furniture, stained glass, and more. The remaining decade brought about his first solo exhibition at the Durand-Ruel Gallery and several major exhibitions with Les Nabis, as well as his first illustration commission for the novel Marie by Peter Nansen.

Bonnard continued to explore new methods and genres in the rapidly changing art world as a new century began, though his style and subject matter remained largely the same. A series of major exhibitions took place between 1900 and the beginning of World War I, in which he showed several times at the Salon des Independants and held a show of nudes and portraits at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery. More illustration commissions were offered, and he created lithographs for a book of poems by Verlaine and another by Octave Mirbeau. In 1909 he was commissioned by the Russian art patron Ivan Morozov to created a series of decorative panels titled Meditterranee. He was able to continue to work during the war through the good graces of art patrons and by 1918 his place in the French art world was secured with an honorary election as President of the Association of Young French Artists. 

The 1920s through the 1930s was greatly prolific for Bonnard. His bright, sunlit compositions depicting intimate interiors as well as tender, unassuming nudes, candid portraits, and saturated, lush landscapes were sought after by galleries, collectors, and government commissions alike. He exhibited at the Autumn Salon in 1923 and a retrospective of his works was held at Galerie Druet the following year. In 1938, a major American exhibition of Bonnard and Vuillard took place at the Art Institute of Chicago, securing his international reputation. 

In 1939, as World War II began and the occupation of France was imminent, Bonnard fled Paris, moving his studio to his cottage near Le Cannet in the south of France. As the war hit its stride he was offered a commission to paint the portrait of French Chief of State Philippe Petain, by then an open Nazi collaborator. Bonnard refused, taking instead a commission to paint Saint Francis de Sales, using the face of his friend Vuillard who had died two years prior. Bonnard continued to live and work in his cottage until the week before his death in 1947. 

A posthumous retrospective, originally intended to be a celebration of his 80th birthday, took place at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1948. By then, as the world recovered from war and a younger generation of artists began to take form, Post-Impressionist work had declined in popularity, making room for the avant-garde. However, Bonnard's work has proven to exhibit the kind of timelessness that few artists achieve. Renewed interest in the artist and his contribution to one of art history's most innovative periods, as well as his ability to retain his singular style despite the comings and goings of popular techniques, shows the strength of Bonnard's work. This may be attributed to his refusal to paint en plain air or from life, allowing for the exploration of a mood more than a subject, allowing the viewer to make of the scene what they will. 

Bonnard's work can be found in private and public collections throughout the world.