Pierre Bonnard
Biography of Post-Impressionist Painter, Colour Lithographer.

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Self-Portrait by Pierre Bonnard (1889)
A key member of Les Nabis.
Private Collection.

Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947)


Early Life
The Nabis
Intimism and Impressionism
Mature Paintings

For analysis of works by colourist painters like Bonnard,
please see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

For an idea of the pigments
used by Pierre Bonnard, see:
Colour Palette Nineteenth Century

For the best works, see:
Greatest Modern Paintings.

For an explanation of the
terminology, see:
Art: Definition and Meaning.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.
For the greatest view painters, see:
Best Landcape Artists.
For the greatest still life art, see:
Best Still Life Painters.
For the greatest portraitists
see: Best Portrait Artists.
For the greatest genre-painting, see:
Best Genre Painters.


An active figure in French painting, the French colourist, poster designer and colour-lithographer, Pierre Bonnard, was a founding member of the group of Symbolist painters known as Les Nabis, who took anti-naturalistic elements of art and applied them to decorative painting, theatre decor and posters. Influenced by Impressionism, he is best known for his domestic scenes - often featuring his wife in the bathroom, due to her obsession with cleanliness - painted in a style called Late Impressionism. But his later mature works exemplify Post-Impressionism, and typically feature non-naturalistic colours applied in an Expressionist manner. Bonnard is considered to be one of the 20th century's most important Post-Impressionist painters, and a wonderful exponent of colour in painting - see his glorious colour harmonies, blues, violets, greens, with glowing pinks and oranges. Moreover, his paintings have a subtle composition which is delivered through apparently ordinary subject matter. Supported by (inter alia) the art-collector Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939), he became an important member of the Ecole de Paris: his most popular works of Post-Impressionist painting include: Indolence (1899, private collection); The Letter (1906, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC); In the Washroom (1907, Gallery Daniel Malingue, Paris); Bathing Woman, Seen from the Back (1919, Tate Gallery, London); Green Blouse (1919, Metropolitan Museum of Art) and the Terrace at Vernon (1939, Metropolitan Museum).


Early Life

Bonnard was born in the Hauts-de-Seine region in France in 1867. He came from a respectable, wealthy background; his father was a prominent civil servant in the French Ministry of War. At the insistence of his father, Bonnard studied law and passed his bar exams, working briefly as a barrister. While working he also studied art, taking evening lessons in drawing and painting at the Julian Academy. Here, at the Academy, he befriended other modern artists including Paul Serusier (1864-1927), Mauris Denis (1870-1943), Paul Ranson (1862-1909) and Henri Ibels (1867-1936) - all of whom were to go on to form Les Nabis. Initially, the group formed out of a general interest in modern art and literature, but within a few years they would pursue their groundbreaking work in various types of art. In 1888 he enrolled at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and, although he found its teaching methods antiquated, he did befriend Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940) and Ker-Xavier Roussel (1867-1944), both of whom were introduced to the Nabis. In 1889, Bonnard won first prize in a poster design competition advertising champagne. The innovative modern style he applied to the painting would go on to influence Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), who became famous for his 19th century poster art.


The Nabis

The term 'Nabi' means prophet in Hebrew. The group was named by the poet Henri Cazalis who drew a parallel between the way the painters aimed to revitalise painting as prophets of modern art and the way the ancient prophets had rejuvenated Israel. Paul Serusier was the main proponent of the group, but Bonnard was involved from the start, although he later drifted in other directions. The Nabis worked in a variety of media including oil on canvas and cardboard, wall decoration, prints, illustrations, posters, textile and furniture. Influenced by Symbolism, Japanese prints and Oriental design, the group's works were seen as avant-garde for their time. Their paintings were influenced by Impressionist painters - so although they shared the flatness of space of Art Nouveau, they were still driven by the use of colour which they employed in an unrealistic manner, demonstrating influences of the Post-Impressionists Paul Gaugin and Van Gogh. Bonnard continued to create a range of decorative art, including posters and lithographs, his style in this medium was primarily Art Nouveau. In the early 20th century, as art moved from traditional representation towards Abstraction, Cubism and so on, the Nabis, whose roots remained in Impressionism, quickly came to be viewed as conservative. In later years, they totally abandoned experimentation in the applied and decorative arts.

Intimism and Impressionism

From 1900 onwards, Bonnard's palette became richer in colour and his brushstrokes became thicker, impasto. He shared this method with Vuillard. This more Impressionist technique and choice of subject matter (interiors, women bathing, family scenes at the table) became known as Intimism. Bonnard's landscape painting became brilliant in colour and brightly lit, painterly features that were especially influential on the next generations of European painters. His wife Marthe was the model for many of his female studies, in which she never seems to age - he admitted to painting from memory in later years. Bonnard also created a series of self-portraits, which recorded the perplexities he felt about life. Bonnard rarely painted directly from life, but rather made sketches or took photographs of his subjects, turning only later to the studio and his canvas. Examples from this period include: Indolence (1899, private collection); The Terrasse Family (1900, Musee d'Orsay, Paris) and Woman in Black Stockings (1900, private collection).

Mature Paintings

Living outside of Paris, Bonnard had little interest in modern art movements like Fauvism, Cubism, and Futurism, all of which moved too far along the road towards abstract art for his liking. During the First World War, he exhibited little, and it appears that the conflict had no impact on his art. He continued to paint colourful, happy scenes, associated with a warm happy personal life. In 1918 Bonnard was appointed honorary president of the Society of Young French Painters. He was also a personal friend of the parents and family of Count Balthazar Klossowski de Rola, better known as Balthus (1908-2001). In 1926 he moved to the Cote d'Azur, where he remained until he died in 1947. He continued to paint prolifically, his most notable paintings in later years, all in private collections include: Fruit Basket (1929-1930); Landing Stage (c.1934); Nude in the Bathtub (1935) and Landscape of Cote d'Azur (1943). A particular favourite was his Basket and Plate of Fruit on a Red-Checkered Tablecloth (c. 1939, Art Institute of Chicago).

For an avid collector of Bonnard, see Duncan Phillips (1886-1966), who purchased 17 canvases for the Phillips Collection.


Bonnard had been holding solo exhibitions in Paris from 1904 onwards. In 1924, he received his first retrospective exhibition. Four years later, in 1928, he had his first one-man exhibition in New York, and from then on his paintings became known on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1948 the Museum of Modern Art held a posthumous retrospective of his works, although it was originally intended to celebrate his 80th birthday. By this time however, Bonnard's style of oil painting had fallen out of favour with the post-war world, which found his luxurious colours not fitting with the times. His great friend Henri Matisse, formerly the leader of the fauvism movement, defended Bonnard's contribution to painting on many occasions. Happily, since that time, Bonnard has been reinstated as one of the greatest colourists of the 20th century, and his paintings can be seen in many of the best art museums throughout the world. In 1988 the Tate Modern in London and the Museum of Modern Art, New York held major retrospectives of his work. Today, his paintings sell for up to $8 million dollars.

• For more biographies of French Post-Impressionists, see: Famous Painters.
• For details of art movements like Intimism and the Nabis, see: History of Art.
• For more information about modern painting in France, see: Homepage.

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