Pierre Bonnard was born on October 3, 1867 in Fontenay-aux-Roses just outside of Paris, France.
Pierre Bonnard was the son of a high-ranking bureaucrat in the French War Ministry.
Upon the insistence of his father, Bonnard studied law at the Sorbonne from 1885 to 1888. He graduated with a Baccalaureate, distinguishing himself in the Classics, and briefly practiced as a barrister in a government office. However, he had also attended art classes at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1887, where he failed to win the Prix de Rome (which would have allowed him to study at the French Academy in Rome), and so transferred to the Académie Juliana, liberal Parisian art school where he met Maurice Denis, Paul Sérusier, Ker-Xavier Roussel, Paul Ranson, Félix Vallotton, and Édouard Vuillard.
After brief military service, in 1889 he joined the group of young painters called Les Nabis (after the Hebrew words navi or nabi, meaning prophet), which was organized by Paul Sérusier. Les Nabis, influenced by Paul Gauguin and Japanese prints, experimented with arbitrary color, expressive line, a wide range of mediums, and flat, patterned surfaces.
In 1889, Bonnard won a competition to design a poster advertising France Champagne, In his illustration a seemingly frivolous female looks over her shoulder, holding a fan in one hand and her magical glass of champagne in the other. Champagne bubbles, expressed through an agitated line that alternates between thick and thin, create both a literal and symbolic feeling of froth. The work is characterized by continuous, undulating outlines, flattened form, flat poster color, purposeful distortion of perspective and proportion. The influences of Japanese prints is visible in this illustration. When Bonnard’s France-Champagne poster appeared on the walls of Paris that year, he decided to become an artist, gave up law and in 1890 shared a studio in Montmartre with Denis and Vuillard.
Bonnard began to make color lithographs.
The first exhibition of Bonnard's works was in 1891, at the Salon des Independants.
The same year Bonnard met Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and began showing his work at the annual exhibition of the Société des Artistes Indépendants.
Bonnard also began his association with La Revue Blanche for which he and his friend Vuillard designed frontispieces.
Bonnard's lithographs were published in 1895 by the well-known art dealer Ambroise Vollard.
In addition to paintings, Bonnard was a prolific artist, producing furniture and textile deigns, puppets for puppet shows, painted screens, stage sets, and illustrated books. He illustrated poet Paul Verlaine's book of Symbolist poems Parallèlement in 1900.
Les Nabis disbanded around the same year.
After 1900, he began spending more time in the countryside between Normandy and Paris, producing a great number of landscapes.
Before the beginning of World War I, Bonnard traveled extensively throughout Europe and North Africa, although his paintings were not indicative of his experiences there. The same went for the trials and tribulations of World War I, of which there is no reference in his paintings.
Bonnard was described by historians and his own friends as a man of "quiet temperament," and one who was unobtrusively independent. His often complex compositions - typically of sunlit interiors of rooms and gardens populated with friends and family members - are both narrative and autobiographical.
For years, Pierre Bonnard juggled the love of two of his models. His wife Marthe de Méligny, whom he had met in 1893, and Renée Monchaty. In Young Women in the Garden, Bonnard painted them both. They are in a bourgeois backyard garden, like something out of a Renoir or Manet, at a large table adorned with a basket of fruit. Monchaty is the focal point of the scene. She sits in a chair, turned toward the viewer; her head rests innocently in her hand. She appears contented, at ease. In the bottom corner of the scene, looking not at the viewer but toward Monchaty, de Méligny looks quietly bemused, her profile nearly cut out of the frame.
Bonnard ultimately left Monchaty for de Méligny. Sensing that his marriage to de Méligny was imminent, and that his affections were fading, Monchaty fatally shot herself on her bed. More sensationally, another version has it that Monchaty slit her wrists in the bath so that Bonnard would arrive to find her dead. Whatever the case, Monchaty’s suicide was one of the central definers, tragedies, and regrets of Bonnard’s life.
Marthe was an ever-present subject over the course of several decades. It was not until they married in 1925 when Bonnard became aware that her real name was Maria Boursin. It is said that she ran away from her home and lied about her age and status for many years. Nevertheless, she became the (sometimes) obsessive subject of his work, with him painting her as many as 385 times. He also took intimate photos of her that he would later incorporate into his paintings. Bonnard lived with de Méligny for close to fifty years and even after she died, he conjured her from memory on his canvas.
Over the course of their lives, whether in a Parisian apartment at the foot of Montmartre 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.
He also painted several self-portraits, landscapes, street scenes, and many still lifes depicting flowers and fruit. His habit was to work on numerous canvases simultaneously, which he tacked onto the walls of his small studio; in fact, Bonnard had one of the smallest studios in the history of modern art. In this way he could more freely determine the shape of a painting: as he noted, "it would bother me if my canvases were stretched onto a frame. I never know in advance what dimensions I am going to choose."
Color was so important to Bonnard that he was known to touch up paintings that he had painted years prior in order to get them just right. When he had mixed a color that was particularly to his liking, he would even go back and touch up other paintings with that color. He once persuaded his friend Édouard Vuillard to distract one of the guards in a museum while he touched up a work that had been completed years previously.
The tension of brushwork that animates Bonnard’s paintings, especially the late work, is precisely due to carefully considered color relationships throughout the canvas rectangle. Those relationships probe color as it translates light, and light as it transforms color. Color and its infinite relationships become the metaphor for Bonnard’s experience of his subject.
He used metaphor and irony in many of his works.
Bonnard explicitly admitted that he could only paint the familiar. The rituals of daily life—taking tea, feeding the cat, tending to the dinner table—were his subjects. His interiors began as small drawings and watercolors, the drawings made on the pages of tiny diaries, the watercolors worked up in the studio, often with the aid of pencil and gouache. The paintings developed slowly over time. The chronological order of Bonnard’s paintings is difficult to determine, for he would make sketches in pencil or color and then use them as the basis for several pictures on which he would work simultaneously.
Bonnard’s work hasn’t always been respected—nor is it necessarily universally respected now—and his use of color has been castigated for its supposed indecisiveness and meaninglessness. Picasso was perhaps his greatest detractor, once snapping to a reporter, “Don’t talk to me about Bonnard. That’s not painting what he does. He never goes beyond his own sensibility. He doesn’t know how to choose. When Bonnard paints a sky, perhaps he first paints it blue, more or less the way it looks. Then he looks a little longer and sees some mauve in it, so he adds a touch or two of mauve, just to hedge. Then he decides that maybe it’s a little pink too, so there’s no reason not to add some pink. The result is a potpourri of indecision. If he looks long enough, he winds up adding a little yellow, instead of making up his mind what color the sky really ought to be. Painting can’t be done that way. Painting isn’t a question of sensibility: it’s a matter of seizing the power, taking over from nature, not expecting her to supply you with information and good advice."
Picasso could not be more wrong. Bonnard was constantly changing his paintings, particularly the colors, because he was adjusting the painting’s mood. Bonnard was not responding to nature, he was responding to himself in nature and the changes he saw therein. When he painted his wife phantasmal and languorous in the tub, he was not interested in transcending what a bathtub might look like or even what his wife might look like; he was seeing his own self in her figuration, leaking out, ceasing slowly to exist.
In 1926, Bonnard had moved to Le Cannet near Cannes in the south of France. .
Bonnard continued to create major exhibitions of his work, traveling to the United States, commissioned to paint the French pavilion at the Exposition Universeilles in Paris in 1937. In 1938, there was a major exhibition of his work along with Vuillard's at the Art Institute of Chicago.
During World War II, he maintained his residence in Le Cannet, continuing there as a recluse even after his wife died in 1942. Shortly before his death he completed the large mural Saint Francis Healing the Sick (1947) for the Church of Assy. He finished his last painting, The Almond Tree in Blossom (1947), a week before his death in his cottage on La Route de Serra Capeou near Le Cannet on the French Riviera.
In his old age, he returned to the dazzling light and color of his earlier work.
The Museum of Modern Art, in New York, exhibited a posthumous exhibition of his work in 1948, although they had been planning the work since before the artist’s death the year before, as a celebration of his 80th birthday.
At the time of his death, Bonnard's reputation had already been eclipsed by subsequent avant-garde developments in the art world. Although Bonnard avoided public attention, his work sold well during his life..