Sunday, February 28, 2016

Intimate Lives, Sensual Interiors — At Home with Pierre Bonnard: Transcendence Through Color at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, through May 15, 2016

I’ve always admired and loved the color experimentation and singular focus and dedication of Pierre Bonnard. His saffron-hued and fuzzily intimate interior scenes invite us into his world, to dine, to linger in soft focus, to dream in eternal sunshine, to chat, to meet the family and their sleeping cat, and to chat with his somnolent his models. 

Pierre Bonnard was a contemporary of Cezanne and Picasso and Matisse, but his singular devotion to depicting and honoring domestic life left art critics cool and dismissive. After his early career as a rather provocative figure, he settled down and immersed himself in his gardens, his landscapes, and his compliant and happy accomplices, his family. 

He painted his wife for fifty years, and perfected his craft in his rustic retreats near Paris, and later in the white-hot light and luscious intensity of the South of France.

Bonnard now gets his recognition with a delightful new exhibition that recently opened at the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco. Come with me to view my edit of some of the paintings—and then dash over to the glorious Legion galleries to immerse in the glory of Bonnard’s vivid and painterly private universe.

I hope you’ll be inspired to visit the wondrous Legion of Honor museum, to feast on the Bonnards, and perhaps afterwards to venture along the adjacent walking trail high above the bay. Now that’s a well-spent afternoon.

In the words of Pierre Bonnard:

“Draw your pleasure, paint your pleasure, and express your pleasure strongly.”

“Color does not add a pleasant quality to design — it reinforces it.”

“A painting that is well composed is half finished.”

Pierre Bonnard: Painting Arcadia

The California Palace of the Legion of Honor is the exclusive US venue and the exhibit comes to San Francisco after being on view in both Paris and Madrid. The Legion exhibit debuted at the Musée d’Orsay where many of these paintings are on permanent show.

This is the first major international presentation of Bonnard’s work to be mounted on the West Coast in half a century. The intimate exhibition celebrates Pierre Bonnard as one of the defining figures of modernism in the transitional period between Impressionism and abstraction. It also shows that, like Monet and Manet and Picasso and many other French painters of the period, he was fascinated and influenced by Japanese woodcuts, and traditional Japanese imagery, composition, and lyricism.

But for Bonnard, immersing himself and constantly painting interiors in ‘contrejour’…into or against the light…that was his obsession.

Canvas after canvas features a model or a table set with lunch and large open windows casting sun and light and contrast into the room. Shadows fall on white tablecloths. All is backlit.

He also loved to distort for effect and was particularly fascinated with tricks of perspective. In The Dining Room (1913), for example, he employed different levels of perspective and varied the transitions of tone, from warm to cool.

Gardens in spring have the same magical feeling of life, the universe and spheres and sun spinning. It’s a dream—and Bonnard’s very compelling and celebratory one.

About the Artist

Born in the countryside near Paris in 1867, Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947) was the son of a high-ranking bureaucrat in the French War Ministry. In 1887 he enrolled in classes at the Académie Julian in Paris, where he became a student and a follower of Paul Gauguin. Gauguin’s teaching inspired a group of young painters known as Les Nabis and the young Bonnard joined. By the early years of the twentieth century, the Nabis had disbanded, and for the remainder of his career, Bonnard resisted affiliation with any particular school or movement. Instead, he alternated between the themes and techniques of the Impressionists and the abstract visual modes of modernism.

Bonnard worked in many genres and techniques, including painting, drawing and photography. From the domestic and urban scenes of his early Nabi period to the great elegies of the twentieth century, Bonnard’s output is grounded in a modernity transformed by his exploration of other cultures, including Japanese woodblock prints and Mediterranean mosaics. 

About the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, comprising the de Young in Golden Gate Park and the Legion of Honor in Lincoln Park, are the largest public arts institution in San Francisco.
The Legion of Honor was inspired a replica of the Palais de la Légion d’Honneur in Paris, at San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915. The museum opened in 1924 in the Beaux Arts–style building designed by George Applegarth on a bluff overlooking the Golden Gate. Its holdings span 4,000 years and include European painting, sculpture and decorative arts; ancient art from the Mediterranean basin; and the largest collection of works on paper in the American West.

The museum is superbly sited with views of the bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Pacific Ocean.

For more information:

Images of the Bonnard paintings are used here with permission from SFAS.

A Note: More Peru posts, including Machu Picchu, coming soon.


Reviving Charm said...

I will be in SF in a few weeks and it's was one of the "many" things I already have planned while I am in town. I have been a longtime fan of Bonnard's work and look forward to the exhibit. Plus the Legion of Honor is just a great place to visit, regardless. And the views are amazing from around the property. Great much good info!

Chez Laurel said...

Thank you so much for this post! I had almost forgotten that this exhibition was coming to San Francisco.

Would you please give a little assessment of the catalog...some are simply brilliant and others are disappointing. How would you categorize this one? Thanks for considering my request.

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


Wonderful to hear from you.

The Bonnard show is a surprise and a delight. He is simply not as known as his contemporary painters…think Matisse…so this makes the show a discovery. And, as noted..especially for visitors the Legion of Honor is a superb museum. It overlooks he city and the Bay, and stepping out through the entry columns is dramatic, indeed. I love the interior and the permanent collection.

Betsy--yes, the catalog is very very thorough and colorful. It's an excellent guide to the show--and a reference you will enjoy. I was impressed by the thoroughness and production. Yes, I recommend it.
Thank you for checking.

my best--DIANE

columnist said...

An Impressionist with whom I was not entirely familiar, but whose work is very captivating for me. Thanks for this post. I wish I could visit the exhibit.