Pierre Bonnard - Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Tuesday, May 14, 2024 | Phillips

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  • “I have all my subjects to hand. I go and look at them. I take notes […] And before I start painting I reflect, I dream.”
    —Pierre Bonnard
    Balanced poignantly between intimacy and intrusion, Pierre Bonnard’s portraits of his primary model and wife, Marthe de Méligny bathing or engaged at her toilette are amongst the artist’s most immediately recognizable and well-known works. Offering new variations on the established motif of the artist and model (even when the artist himself is not immediately visible), it is in this body of work that Bonnard’s presence as an attentive observer of everyday life is most keenly felt. Painted around 1924, coinciding with Bonnard’s marriage to Marthe, Nu de profil, jambe droite levée is a pivotal work from this larger series, highlighting subtle shifts in his practice during this period, and combining key influences and compositional concerns that preoccupied the painter throughout his career. 

     

    Pierre Bonnard, Nu fond jaune, c. 1924, Dallas Museum of Art, Texas. Image: Bridgeman Images

    Closely related to a sister work completed in the same year and now held in the permanent collection of the Dallas Museum of Art in Texas, Nu de profil, jambe droite levée evidences the artist’s keen sense of color, pattern, spatial ambiguity, and compositional balance. The rigid and rhythmic intersections of vertical and horizontal lines generate a tight pictorial framework here that both contains and counterpoints the more sensitively modelled curves of the bending figure at its center, vividly demonstrating the extent to which Bonnard succeeded in making his “subject an integral part of the formal structure.”i While the spatial arrangement of later interiors tends to be dominated by rounded, hollow forms, here the exchange between flat, square passages and the rounded edge of the tub documents a transitional moment in the artist’s treatment of pictorial space. Bonnard’s mastery of light and color plays its part here too. Highly patterned areas collide with more solid passages of strong, dark pigments, the ochre tones of the wash basin appearing to come forward, while the darker rectangular section behind the figure draws our eye deeper into the space beyond. 

     

    It is the carefully defined geometry of these flattened planes of color and pattern that articulates the boundaries between material reality and emotion that so fascinated the artist whose working method involved “looking, taking notes, reflecting, and dreaming […] allowing his imagination to take possession of a motif.”ii The motif that would preoccupy the artist more than any other was of course Marthe herself and, through her, the quiet sensuality of everyday domesticity most iconically realized in the images of her floating weightlessly in the bathtub that he would commence in the year following the present work’s execution. 

    Intimacy and Interiors

     

    From the very outset of his career, Bonnard gravitated towards the subjects and scenes with which he was intimately familiar. Capturing moments of quiet domesticity, his paintings from the 1890s frequently featured his immediate family preoccupied by their daily routine at Le Clos,  the old family house in the village of Le Grand-Lemps near the French Alps. The thematic intimacy of these gentle scenes is further emphasized by the flattened treatment of interior space, honed by the artist through his early associations with the Nabis group and the radical influence of Paul Gauguin’s reduction of painting to its essentials of line, color, and surface.

     

    Gauguin’s search for modes of expression outside of the western canon would prove hugely instructive to the Nabis painters, who responded enthusiastically to the craze for Japonisme that swept Paris in the last decades of the 19th century. Characterized by a shallow sense of pictorial space achieved through combined perspectives and flattened blocks of color stacked close to the picture plane, these woodblock prints with their emphasis on sinuous line and pattern had proven hugely influential to Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists, cemented by the large exhibition of Ukiyo-e prints mounted by the École des Beux-Arts in Paris during the spring of 1890. Bonnard’s compositions with their foreshortened angles, vertiginous perspectives, and flattened areas of bold color and pattern clearly speak to the profound influence of these woodcut prints on his own practice. 

     

    [Left] Utagawa Kunisada, Tale of the Courtesan Shiratama, 1861. Image: CPA Media Pte Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo 
    [Right] Pierre Bonnard, Nu dans le bain, 1925, Tate Collection, London. Image: akg-images

    Marthe gradually started appearing in Bonnard’s work shortly after their first meeting in 1893. She provided Bonnard with a vehicle to channel a unique sensuality and emotional intensity into his chromatically luminous scenes of the everyday. Making a lasting contribution to the art historical tradition of the female nude, Bonnard’s eroticized depictions of Marthe engaged in various bathing and grooming rituals occupied a central position in his practice between 1900 and his death in 1947. Now ranking amongst his most famous works, they have subsequently been cited as an influence for future generations of figurative artists, including postwar master Lucian Freud, and a host of emerging contemporary painters such as Doran Langberg and Antonia Showering. 

     

    Marthe struggled with poor health in an age where modernist discourses around the body, wellness, and hygiene were at their most pronounced, manifesting most notably in Le Corbusier’s infamous 1923 dictum that “A house is a machine for living in. Baths, sun, hot water, cold water […] hygiene, beauty in the sense of good proportion.”iii Encouraged to take long baths to relieve a mysterious respiratory ailment and calm an anxious disposition, Marthe and Bonnard both adopted this new approach to the promotion of wellness and the benefits of certain therapeutic practices on the body, renovating their home to incorporate these modern conveniences. However, as has often been noted, these scenes should not be read in isolation, but as connected to a broader art historical tradition of depicting women at their toilette, notably Edgar Degas’ Impressionistic renderings of the motif in pastel, and Georges Seurat’s statuesque nudes. 

     

    [Left] Edgar Degas, Femme à sa toilette essuyant son pied gauche, 1886, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Image: Bridgeman Images
    [Right] Georges Seurat, Poseuses, 1886-8, The Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia. Image: Courtesy of the Barnes Foundation, Merion and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

    Bonnard, like Degas, was fascinated by the immediacy and compositional potential introduced by new photographic techniques, which could capture fleeting poses not unlike the one recorded in the present work with fidelity and directness. While Bonnard drew on Degas’ aesthetic elevation of these intimate, everyday moments, his formal treatment of the figure is more robust and considered, connected through Seurat to the traditions of antique sculpture. Statuesque and still, his nudes are often “caught in a tension between supporting leg and free leg […] so that she seems suspended in a moment of fixity on the canvas; like Seurat, he binds her as if in a film still, transforming the models into classical sculptures, lending them an aura.”iv Set at the center of the composition in a dynamic pose that activates the more textured elements of the patterned floor and wall behind her, the sculptural qualities of the figure here are further emphasized by the softer folds of the crumpled sheets, and the rigid, repeating geometries of the square and rounded forms of the tub and washstand. 

     

    Concerned primarily with the translation of perception and sensation into pictorial form, Bonnard’s project is at once tied to and exceeds the experiments of Impressionism, representing “an ardent effort to solve, on a strictly pictorial plane, the problem of vision and its plastic expression.”v Going considerably further than mimetic representation, Bonnard’s contemplative approach enabled him to use painting as a means of extracting meaning, memory, and atmosphere from daily life. As John Rewald poetically suggested: “With the exception of Vuillard, no painter of his generation was to endow his technique with so much sensual delight, so much feeling for the indefinable texture of paint, so much vibration. His paintings are covered with color applied with a delicate voluptuousness that confers to the pigment a life of its own and treats every single stroke like a clear note of a symphony.”vi

     

    i Sarah Whitfield, ‘Fragments of an Identical World’, in Bonnard, exh.cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1998, p. 10

    ii Sarah Whitfield, ‘Fragments of an Identical World’, in Bonnard, exh.cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1998, p. 13. 

    iii Le Corbusier, Vers un Architecture, Paris, 1923, trans. by Frederick Etchells, Towards a New Architecture, London, 1923, p. 95. 

    iv Evelyn Benesch, ‘Bonnard Through the Mirror’, in Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory, exh. cat., Tate Modern, London, 2019, p. 32. 

    v Efstratios Tériade, quoted in Matthew Gale, ‘Pierre Bonnard: Suspended in Mid-Air’, in Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory, exh. cat., Tate Modern, London, 2019, p. 21. 

    vi John Rewald, Pierre Bonnard, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1948, p. 48. 

    • Provenance

      Estate of the artist
      Wildenstein & Co., Inc., New York
      Hal B. Wallis, Los Angeles
      The Collection of Hal B. Wallis, Christie’s, New York, May 10, 1989, lot 4
      Private Collection
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2002

    • Exhibited

      Rome, Studio A, Bonnard, Vuillard, Roussel, April 1964, n.p. (illustrated; illustrated on the cover; dated 1935)
      Los Angeles, County Museum of Art (on long term loan, January 1987–February 1989)

    • Literature

      Jean and Henry Dauberville, Bonnard. Catalogue raisonné de l’oeuvre peint 1920-1939, vol. III, Paris, 1973, no. 1277, pp. 230, 458 (illustrated, p. 230)

Property from an Important Private American Collection

19

Nu de profil, jambe droite levée

stamped “Bonnard” upper left
oil on canvas
20 x 16 in. (50.8 x 40.6 cm)
Painted circa 1924.

Full Cataloguing

Estimate
$600,000 - 800,000 

Contact Specialist

Carolyn Kolberg
Associate Specialist, Head of Evening Sale, New York
+1 212 940 1206
CKolberg@phillips.com

Modern & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 14 May 2024