Written for JPL Fine Art exhibition catalogue
Although most people do not at first think of Bonnard as a painter of landscapes, it was, in fact, a subject that he drew and painted the most. Bonnard, more than any other painter of the twentieth century was heir to the Impressionists, and his relationship with Impressionism is very interesting. Pissarro wrote to his son Lucien to say that all the Impressionists were agreed as to how frightful was the first show of the fashionable young painter Pierre Bonnard. But this was his Nabis period and later when his concerns had deepened and his style developed they became his friends and admirers. When in 1912 Bonnard bought a house a few miles down river from Giverny, he and Monet became firm friends and used to visit one another regularly. In one sense Bonnard could not have been more different from Monet and the other Impressionists: he never painted in front of his subject, but worked in the studio from memory and a little drawing (usually only one) which was the only thing he made in front of nature. However, by working in this way, Bonnard could paint the reality of an instant; those moments when the endless, random unwinding of ever-changing appearance suddenly revealed a completeness that was graspable, when sky and trees, river and grass, light and air all came together to make for that instant something clear and new and perfect.
Bonnard had an extraordinary decorative talent and the pattern of his drawings (and paintings) derived less straightforwardly from the appearance of the landscape than was the case with Monet or Pissarro. He started equally from his subject, and the rectangle of paper that he was looking at, so that from first to last his marks were sub-divisions of the rectangle, articulations of that whole as much as movements about the landscape he was looking at. It was only by being the former that they could be the latter. In almost every case he used the whole piece of paper he took out of his pocket to record his experience in a design. He hardly ever changed its proportions with a delimiting line. It seems to have been natural for him to accept and use (almost) any surface to express (almost) any subject, and this, of course, is one reason why he was such a great illustrator and graphic designer. It is an interesting aspect of this attitude to drawing that when he started a painting the format he chose was different from that of the drawing he was working from, even though the subject was the same. One reason for this, I suspect, is that he needed to feel that he was inventing from scratch every time and just as his drawing was in no way a “copy” of the subject’s appearance, so his painting was in no way a “copy” of his drawing. Bonnard drew again and again from the same places: around his house and garden, or on his regular walks in the surrounding country. It was the instant that he drew, and this was always made new, by time and season, weather and light, but underneath it, so to speak, was the enduring landscape, and this he knew very well. I think that the fact that he understood the geography of his motifs so well was one reason why he was able to draw so quickly and attend with such sensitivity and wholeheartedness to its particular mood, using everything about his design, from its composition to its smallest marks, to pin down what made it different this time from anything that he had seen before.
Study the seven drawings made from the veranda of “Ma Roulotte”, his house by the Seine near Vernon (Nos. 64-5, 76, 78-9, 82-3). All of them are about looking across the river at the same meadow opposite and most have the same bushes of Bonnard’s descending garden in the foreground, but there the similarity ends. In No. 76 the sensations generated by the pen marks contrast with the strong horizontals of the very near handrail of the veranda and the far bank of the river and fields and hills beyond to give that slightly restless feeling one has on a relentlessly grey day in Summer. How utterly different is No. 79 in which the clear but rounded pencil marks and soft hazing of sky and distant hills give us a moment of high summer, silent and still. From its great height the disinterested sun seems to have immobilised everything: the motionless bushes, the wide, brilliant river and the isolated cows in the parched, flat meadow. The composition and focus in No. 64 is so different from the others that I did not at first realise it was the same motif. The river seems very high and there is a lot of “weather” about. There is also a lot of human activity near the far bank of the river which explains the different focus and resulting composition. There is even more “weather” in No. 65; rain and sun. Drawing was never nearer to painting than in this wonderful drawing. (You will find a description opposite the reproduction.) No. 83 is a “double size” drawing (Bonnard seems to have had paper folded to fit in his pocket. Usually he drew on it the folded, small, size; but occasionally he would open it out to make a larger drawing). It is of exceptional richness and variety of pencil “colourings”. The overall balance of light and dark, as always, instantly generates the total harmony of light (description opposite reproduction).
The drawings No. 65 and 83 are good examples of something I wrote about in my introduction to the “Interior Subjects” exhibition. If you were looking for a drawing to paint from, you could scarcely do better than one of these, yet Bonnard did not paint from either. The design of No. 78, and the mood communicated by it, are, again, quite different. The same near bushes and distant trees, but looking as they did on that occasion, and again requiring the most acute invention of pencil on paper. Should one not register it at once, the movement of the whole composition will lead you to The tugboat on the left pulling its barge on the right slowly up stream. As one’s eyes move from one to the other, they seem to pass behind the near bushes, which, of course, is what was happening while Bonnard drew. There is also a tugboat in No. 82 (made from almost exactly the same place as No. 76) and a man fishing from a rowing boat, nearer our bank. This drawing might almost have been made in seconds rather than minutes, but it held a painting should Bonnard have wanted it. (There is a painting of a very similar subject made from a drawing even more “cursory” than this one). The different “weights” of line and tone measure the contrasts at their different distances and one begins to “see” the bright greens and greys of this busy, sunny day in early Summer.
“The work of art: a stop in time” Pierre Bonnard