The Terrace at Vernon (1939) by Pierre Bonnard
Meaning and Interpretation of Colourist Painting

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The Terrace at Vernon
By Pierre Bonnard.
Regarded as one of the
great 20th century paintings
in the colourist idiom.

The Terrace at Vernon (1939)


Articles about 20th Century Painting


Name: The Terrace at Vernon (1939)
Artist: Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947)
Medium: Oil painting
Genre: Genre painting of domestic scene
Movement/Style: Colourism - see Colour in Painting.
Location: Metropolitan Museum of Art

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

For analysis of paintings
by decorative painters like
Pierre Bonnard, see:
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Analysis of The Terrace at Vernon by Bonnard

One of the most popular Post-Impressionist painters, Pierre Bonnard was an influential contributor to the decorative wing of Post-Impressionism and, throughout his career, remained an outstanding exponent of decorative art in various forms. (See also: The Green Blouse, 1919.)

After studying law, he studied art first at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and afterwards at the Academie Julian (1888) in Paris. Together with fellow art students Edouard Vuillard (1869-1940) and Maurice Denis (1870-1943) he formed Les Nabis (1892–99), a group of young painters dedicated to decorative painting under the leadership of Paul Serusier (1864-1927). Serusier was a follower of Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) who advocated representing things symbolically, in strong patterns and colour. After 1900, although he maintained his habit of using light to change the substance and colour of form, he preferred to work in his studio rather than en plein air. But - as The Terrace at Vernon demonstrates - Bonnet's grasp of decoration and design was so good that his non-naturalist colour schemes and idiosyncratic use of perspective is hardly noticeable. For example, our eyes see the tree trunk in the left foreground as a defining violet strip as well as a tree, while the shrubbery in the background merges into a tapestry of colour.

In 1912, Bonnard bought a small country house which he called 'Ma Roulotte' (My Caravan) at Vernonnet, a suburb of Vernon on the river Seine some seventy kilometres west of Paris. Claude Monet (1840-1926) was living at Giverny, about four kilometres along the river, and the two artists visited one another as neighbours. Unlike Monet, whose garden was a masterpiece of formal planning and contrivance, Bonnard preferred an untidy garden, full of wild flowers, shrubs and trees, which he could survey from the terrace, or deck, built on to his house at first-floor level. Both deck and garden feature in a number of large paintings of Vernonnet by Bonnard - paintings in which one is usually aware of the presence of the River Seine, which ran close to Ma Roulotte.

In The Terrace at Vernon the three principal figures in the foreground are immediately noticeable; three more figures are standing on the extreme left, at the point where the deck runs off at a right angle. On the other side of the picture, in the distance, are two more figures, tiny and almost imperceptible, boating on the river.

The dappled sunlight falling onto the table in the foreground draws attention to Bonnard's skilful manipulation of the curved line. The knot in the tree trunk is answered by an elliptical object in the centre of the table, which in turn is echoed in the shape of the table itself and again in the platter of grapes. Bonnard thus sets up a rhythm of curves which resonates throughout the painting - in the shrubbery, for example, and in the foliage of the tree in the middle distance.

The figure of the woman directly facing the viewer is insubstantial. By lining her up with the edge of the tree, Bonnard flattens her almost to a cut-out. She appears to be in a reverie, her mind elsewhere, but her gaze and gesture are unexplained. The figure of the young girl with the basket of fruit next to her is similarly distant. By contrast, another girl rushes in from the right with her arm raised in a theatrical gesture. The viewer is witness to some domestic mini-drama which is being enacted in silence. The painting is like an excerpt from the middle of a novel which we have not read.

A devotee of the theatre, Bonnard has painted his terrace as a stage upon which furniture and other props articulate the action; the trees are stage flats and the landscape is a painted backdrop. The scene is one in which inanimate objects and shapes, such as the wine bottle or the knot in the tree, have their own existence on equal terms with people. People and objects alike emerge from a vibrant surface of colour, a tapestry of warm orange-reds and cool blue-violets and greens. The whole is profoundly decorative, and by such elaborate means the artist has trapped time to give us a sense of the unending present.

The Terrace at Vernonnet (1939) derives from an earlier study in grisaille and is one of the last views he completed of Ma Roulotte.

For analysis of another colourist painting, see: Nasturtiums and the 'Dance' (1912) by Henri Matisse.

Articles about 20th Century Painting

Ecole de Paris (c.1890-1940)
The group of artists active in Paris, of which Bonnard was a member.

Modern Art (c.1870-1970)
General guide to the characteristics and history of modernism.

Modern Art Movements (c.1870-1970)
From Impressionism to Pop.


• For the meaning of other decorative paintings, see: Homepage.

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