PRINT December 1972

Bonnard Drawings

THERE IS NO REASON WHY we should expect Bonnard to have been an accomplished draftsman, and as a rule he wasn’t. Bonnard’s cornucopias gift was color. In his line drawings there is sometimes an embarrassed nakedness in the forms and compositions. For Bonnard, as for many great colorists, drawing was extracurricular and extramural.1

114 of the master’s drawings were recently shown at the Finch College Museum of Art, under the aegis of the American Federation of Arts. The collection, assembled by Mrs. Kyra Gerard and Mr. Alfred Ayrton, covers a large and unfamiliar part of the painter’s work from about his 26th year to the end of his life. The exhibition will be welcome when it travels through this country and Canada, but it has problems. Mainly, this display may not—perhaps ought not to—represent an objective survey of Bonnard’s drafts-manly output. The selection is governed by the taste of a pair of devoted collectors from a total corpus of unknown size. While a few pieces are signed, many carry an estate seal. Nothing wrong with that, but it raises a more important question: in view of the wide span of worth, would Bonnard ever have wanted much of this material to be considered a part of his oeuvre at all? Often enough, what we see is a scrap of paper, sometimes a notebook page, on which is disposed some most inconsequential rendering. Drawing, of course, lends itself to intense privacy and immediacy, but is it fair to the artist to exhibit just about anything? To do so even out of the blindness of love leaves the door open to derision.

Actually, the ways in which Bonnard’s drawings can be bad is interesting. There is a seeming inability to modulate the impress of the pencil: the paper gets severely bruised, but the line just presses stubbornly on. Consequently, many of the drawings look better in reproduction due to a photographic tendency to heighten tonal contrasts. A work which seems to show tonal subtlety when printed may be as drab as a weak Xerox in the flesh. It is probably no accident that other modern colorists such as Matisse and Ellsworth Kelly have produced successful graphics by using lines of a single tone and intensity—but minimizing their number while concentrating on each individual turn of a given line. A good example of this in Bonnard is the background pattern in the drawing The Cat (c. 1920). In fairness, most of the sketches were never intended to be anything more than artist’s scrap. Yet they do range from a perfectly hideous Nativity (c. 1943–44) to a superb Hilly Landscape (c. 1925), with works of historical and critical interest on several levels in between.

One is tempted to pounce on the drawings to pair them up with Bonnard’s paintings. For instance, various works here could be related to The Seine at Vernon (1928) in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, including four already identified as representing that locale. In yet another, River Landscape (c. 1925), it seems possible to identify the stand of trees on the far riverbank with that in the Seine painting. But the drawings seem to comprise a separate enterprise. If they relate to paintings they do so without being working blueprints. Instead they seem to function as discrete exercises in the mastery of the feel and flavor of the motif. They are less like renderings than like the notational sketches of a designer, perhaps with the name of a color written right in. In two cases that is just what we find: in Beach at Low Tide (Arcachon) (c. 1930) the word “violet” is written into one space, and in Estuary of the River Touque; Deauville, Normandy (c. 1936) the notation “rose” appears in a patch of sky. (Delacroix did this in sketches.)

A very lovely Nude in the Bath (1925) has a closer relation to what we imagine when we think of Bonnard’s paintings than do most of the others. This softly penciled figure has half the aspect of a relaxed Olympia, half that of some Pre-Raphaelite Ophelia; the buoyant form of the woman is suggestive of Renoir, but not as boring as that might indicate. As in a number of impressive Bonnard landscape drawings, there is a strong system of parallel bands determining the composition: the lines of the bathtub, the figure, and the suggested background, with empty bands in between. But this grid is gently activated by a slight rotation from the horizontal, causing a drift down to the lower right that helps to heighten the luxuriant relaxation of the subject.

Bonnard doesn’t usually seem interested enough in a particular motif to return to it, at least as far as we can tell from this group of sketches. The pictures of the Seine search continually for fresh situations—different ways to frame the scene, the play of boats on the river—rather than for new refinements on a favorite scene. Two drawings of the same basket of fruit—Basket of Fruit (1928) and Basket of Fruit in the Dining Room at Cannet (1928)—show a fixity of attention and a desire to review a single idea for further study that is unusual. Significantly, the compositions are so similar that the only variation is of tone. The same basket reappears about two years later, together with a different basket, in Baskets of Fruit (c. 1930). It’s hard to tell which of the 1928 drawings came first, but the black chalk version is the more descriptive; the pencil version (Basket of Fruit) could even be a rare reworking of the first. Also, the line indicating the edge of the table breaks off in the pencil version, as if dropping its narrative significance and retiring in favor of an a-spatial pattern. Probably they were drawn in this order, and perhaps one right after the other, for there is a bit of fruit missing from the second sketch, as though Bonnard got hungry and ate part of the motif.

Patrick Heron, the English painter, contributes a rather idolatrous introduction to the present catalogue, arguing that Bonnard is actually the point of origin of contemporary stripe painting, vertical and horizontal. But the horizontally banded landscape drawings simply grow out of the tradition that started with the unendliche Landschaft of the Romantics; Beach at Low Tide (Arcachon) (c. 1930) is particularly suggestive of Friedrich. The verticals don’t seem remarkable in themselves, or significant enough in the light of vertical-stripe painting, to sustain such polemical mobilization. In some cases what might be taken for a daring vertical close to an edge is nothing more than a way of cutting off the sketch on the notebook page, no more radical than similar conventions in the sketchbooks of amateurs a century ago. What does seem radical—although much more in the paintings than in the drawings—is the way verticals and horizontals may drift centrifugally toward the edges of the canvas, so that instead of acting as stabilizing chocks for a central motif they relax the domination of the center and spread out over the surface. Of this Heron is aware; indeed, according to him the idea “was transmitted to New York by way of . . . [an] encounter, in Cornwall in July 1959, between a New York critic and myself.” This is tantalizing, but not too relevant to the drawings, where there is no analogue to the famous “given” of the stretched canvas. Moreover, the seeds of this procedure in painting could be found even before Bonnard’s career began in such works as Van Gogh’s View from Van Gogh’s Room (1886–87). In Van Gogh’s View the cutoff buildings at the side and bottom move beyond the Impressionist/Japanese idea of snapshotlike cropping and take on an inevitable, stable, and complete relation to the canvas edges, with no hint of form beyond. Bonnard transposed this system with variations, investing it with a new responsibility for the disposition of color.

What would have appealed to Bonnard in Van Gogh was that artist’s most French side. A relation to the decorative strength of Van Gogh’s art is much more likely than to its psychological torsion. For instance, there is a fairly close parallel—and not simply an architectural one—between Bonnard’s Cottage Near Cannet (c. 1941) and the middle ground of The House of Père Pilon (1890). But where the Van Gogh pushes us down a narrow channel of space and slams us up against a wall, Bonnard unfolds a pleasant day in the country. Such drawings as Young Woman Leaning on a Table (c. 1923) and a couple of others like it suggest Van Gogh’s Arlesiennes, but the real relation to Van Gogh is much more generalized, as in patches of heavy, repetitive, somewhat wooden strokes with the pencil or pen, or, further, in the frequent flecking or dotting of whole areas with the snapping stub of the penpoint. Both of these features can be found in Tree near Mountain Stream (c. 1918).

The specter of Cézanne haunts several drawings, especially landscapes from the last decade of Bonnard’s life. This is most apparent in the views down onto the town of Can net, which share with pictures like Cézanne’s View of Auvers-sur-Oise (1873–75) an interest in the houses as blocks clustered into a sort of galaxy of units. But what in Cézanne are solid, glyptic chunks reconciled to pictorial flatness, form for Bonnard an entirely unrelieved surface pattern. If the houses are like bricks scattered in the space for Cézanne, for Bonnard they are like the already flat faces of bricks in a wall. Similarly, a hint of Cézanne comes through in the Landscape near Antibes, South of France (c. 1935), where the trailing lines of clouds and branches repeat the profile of distant mountains.

If his relations to the work of Van Gogh and Cézanne indicate a preference on Bonnard’s part for material already preflattened by another artist (and imply a taste that preferred to avoid the angst of doing the flattening), that is no doubt because as a member of the Nabis Bonnard was most immediately following in the line begun by Gauguin and Bernard. Some of the figure drawings here, such as Nude in a Tub (c. 1925), even suggest the elegantly awkward poses of Gauguin’s Tahitian women. (In turn, one of them, Nude Study (c. 1925), reminds me of a beautiful figure drawing by George Segal.) The unstressed, patternistic, 1890s flatness of the Nabis and of Toulouse-Lautrec is obvious in an early drawing in lithographic pencil, The Little Laundress (1896).

Roots, sources, and influences are inescapably important, but in terms of immediate Symbolist evocative power Bonnard’s vivid moodiness is rather like Redon’s. There are even drawings that look like pictures by Redon, including four drawings of vases of flowers. For Bonnard, however, the vase is part of a field of objects that modify its breathing space, and the later a Bonnard flower-vase drawing is the more it will tend to deviate obliquely from Redon’s head-on stare. Still, the lovely Mimosa in a Vase (c. 1930) cannot but call works like Redon’s Etruscan Vase with Flowers (c. 1910) to mind—not impossibly because each work is close in a different way to the sensibility of Matisse.

There is no reason to bend over backwards to make Bonnard seem relevant. The man has only been dead 25 years, and his art is not in need of resuscitation. There are more likely places to look for precedents for stripes. The Gottlieb-like relation of a loose web of ink strokes to the figure above in Young Girl Lying on a Bed (c. 1893) is interesting, but the connection is an obvious fluke. In any case, what is most important in Bonnard, his color, is missing here. And yet when we search through the many pedestrian scribbles, we find a few that do fully supply the taste, intelligence, and beauty that we expect of Pierre Bonnard.

Joseph Masheck



1. Matisse wrote to Bonnard in a letter of January 13, 1940: “. . . Un dessin de coloriste n’est pas une peinture. II faudrait lui donner un équivalent en couleur. C’est ce à quoi je n’arrive pas.” Jean Clair, ed., “Correspondence Matisse-Bonnard, 1925–46,” La Nouvelle Revue française, XVIII/211 (July 1970), 82–100; here p. 92.