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Pierre Bonnard
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Woman with Dog
Woman with Dog

In one dining room scene, Woman with a Basket of Fruit, a pannier bursting with overripe apples, pears and bananas rests on a snowy white cloth and dominates the composition. At the top,Marthe, a remote figure behind the basket, rests her head on one hand as she dreamily looks off into space. Her head echoes the shape of the basket, her blouse blends into the tablecloth, and her red collar and cuffs repeat the apple red of the fruit. Though she is physically one with the scene, her gaze reveals that her mind is wandering afield. Below, her canine companion, a profile head without a body, pokes his nose hopefully upward—a silhouette against the white cloth. Though the tip of the dog’s nose aligns neatly with Marthe’s nostril above, there is no eye contact between the two; the dog’s eye, like that of a pharaoh, stares unblinkingly outward. This could be a quick snapshot of ordinary life, an unremarkable moment with Marthe and her dog. It is as well a funny correspondence of noses. But viewed in another way, the scene echoes with loneliness. The figures catch separate scents, those that evoke longing for different worlds beyond a limiting frame.

Though there is no clear equation of dog with artist in this dining room scene, a correspondence occurs, as it did in the Dressing Table with Mirror, in some later works picturing Marthe in the bathroom at Le Bosquet. The strangest and perhaps the most magnificent of these bathtub paintings was also one of Bonnard’s last works. He began Nude in Bathtub in 1941 and worked on the painting long after Marthe died in January 1942. Even four years after his wife’s death and a year before his own, the artist continued to add touches to the work. In this scene,Marthe lies entombed, floating in a narrow oval tub that, in turn, floats in the shifting space of the room. Intense, prismatic colors describe a grid of tiles on the walls and floor; these colors—orange, yellow, blue and magenta— bleed from the background and define Marthe’s body. Hazy brushstrokes fuse her with the ambiguous space of the room. Dead center in the foreground, the incongruous Dachshund intrudes. A tight little body with his head raised up, the dog is framed by a square of dappled pink rug, a restatement of the Japanese signature. In this scene, he is neither a comic wiener dog and prankish pup nor a loyal companion and placid presence. The Dachshund, like the artist always sketching, intrudes on Marthe’s privacy, a jarring note in a lyrical scene. Perhaps here the dog, as elsewhere, really is Bonnard standing watch.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 53: Mar/Apr 2009
Nancy Coleman Wolsk is professor of art history at Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky., and author of “From Thought to Form,” in Pierre Bonnard: Early and Late; among her specialties are Bonnard’s representations of women and domestic interiors as well as 20th-century French avant-garde art.

Photograph of Pierre Bonnard courtesy of National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Photograph by André Ostier

Woman with Dog, 1891 Oil on canvas 16 in. x 12.75 in. Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute Williamstown, Mass.
© 2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris
 

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