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Pierre Bonnard
A painter’s view of family and friends.
Bonnard, 1941
Bonnard, 1941

In one of his earliest paintings, simply titled Woman with Dog, the painter of private French life Pierre Bonnard caught his sister Andrée as she solemnly leaned down to touch the family pet; in response, the dog knowingly raised a paw to “shake.” In this gentle, sweet scene, the figures turn inward; at the bottom, near the center of the composition, hand and paw come together, forming a triangle within the frame of the painting. Despite the apparent unity of the scene, the dog’s attention strays; his eye, a beady brown spot of paint, looks into a world beyond the frame. The dual nature of this scene—domesticated dog with a wandering eye—recurred in varying forms throughout the artist’s career. Photographs taken at family gatherings and sketches drawn in private moments at home tell us that dogs were a primary presence in Bonnard’s everyday life. They were companions in his daily walks, and he wrote of them in his letters. A memorable photograph taken by the noted photographer André Ostier shows an aged Bonnard tenderly cradling his Dachshund on his lap. In this picture, Bonnard stares solemnly at the camera and the dog looks away—as in his paintings, intimacy and isolation exist side by side.

The year after he painted Woman with Dog, Bonnard set out on his own eccentric path to domesticity when he met Maria Boursin, the woman who called herself Marthe de Méligny. The two became lovers, living together for 32 years before marrying in 1925, the year the artist bought a house in Le Cannet in the south of France. Over the course of their lives, whether in a Parisian apartment at the foot ofMontmartre or at their house, Le Bosquet, in the Midi, Bonnard followed Marthe from room to room, sketching her as she bathed, dressed and ate.He later synthesized these sketches into major paintings—some were of Marthe and their Dachshund at table, others were scenes of Marthe in her bath with the dog nearby. In these works, the model and muse dissolves in light and fuses with the interior space. In contrast, the dog gazes outward, a dark and witty presence in an otherwise harmonious scene.

In 1913, Bonnard began a series of etchings for Dingo, the classic tale of a wild Australian dog by Octave Mirbeau, a popular Parisian writer and critic.Uncorrupted by social institutions, the maverick pup tried, and usually failed, to adapt to French civilization.At about the same time as Bonnard began these illustrations, a dignified Dachshund, the very opposite of the raffish Dingo, found a place in his paintings.

In Dressing Table with Mirror, for example, painted in the year he began the Dingo etchings, Bonnard abandoned the freewheeling stray in favor of his own little pet. Here the dog is triply trapped, enclosed once by the actual frame of the painting, next by the frame of a mirror and finally by a small square red rug. For all its apparent normality and pretty color, Dressing Table with Mirror presents an uncomfortable scene. In the foreground are ordinary objects: a brush, a soap dish, a vase of flowers, bottles of perfume and a large oval bowl, emblems ofMarthe’s private world. In contrast, in the reflected scene above the table, the dog tensely crouches at the bottom of a bed;Marthe sits at the other end, a decapitated nude. One can only wonder at the brutality suggested by that view. Yet table, objects, mirror and nude blend together in soft shades of blue, orange, lavender, white and cream. A solid dark form of the Dachshund, squarely centered inside the mirror’s frame, strikes a dark, dissonant note in a tranquil sea of pastels. But there is a contradiction here. This pup is funny, too. Out of place, incongruous, he solemnly shares a bed with his mistress.

In the 1890s, Bonnard belonged to a brotherhood of adventurous artists; they called themselves the Nabis (the Hebrew and Arabic word for prophet). Each member of the group had a nickname; Bonnard was punningly called the “japonard.” Captivated by the flat planes of color and intimate interiors he found in Japanese woodblock prints, the artist liberally borrowed these forms and conventions for his own work. In prints, Japanese artists often signed their names against a rectangular block of color—the signature carefully set apart from the scene. In Dressing Table with Mirror, the dog on his rectangular red cloth mimics the form of these signs.

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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