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This article is taken from
100 Best Paintings in London

Text by Geoffrey Smith


Arcadian Dreams / Symbolist Visions


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Pierre Bonnard: Coffee - 1915

London, Tate Modern

To stand in front of a painting by Bonnard is to be assailed by colour, to be enraptured by the profusion of rainbow colours which find a home in his canvases. He is one of the great colourists, not just of the twentieth century but of any century.

This canvas is quintessential Bonnard. More than half of the picture is taken up with a red gingham tablecloth which slants towards the viewer. The centre of our attention, two figures and a dog are jammed up in the top third of the composition; one of the figures has lost its head beyond the picture space. On the table we see a coffee pot and cups together with one or two other objects. A woman — Bonnard’s partner Marthe who later became his wife — sips from her cup; beside her a dog stands on a chair, its two front paws on the table. It is an everyday scene but Bonnard delights in the unremarkable rhythm of daily life much as the Impressionists did a generation before him. From this mundane starting point he creates memorable images using gorgeous colour. Here the red of the tablecloth interacts with the blazing gold of Marthe’s dress which is picked up again in the colour of the wall, the picture frame behind the dog and the curious strip down the right hand edge of the picture. Marthe’s face is modelled in red and gold and her fingers are picked out in gold as is the dog’s head.

Much of Bonnard’s output, particularly in the last half of his life, is a catalogue of intimate domesticity. Marthe appears in most of these pictures either as the principal subject or making an appearance as a ‘bit player’ — almost part of the furniture. This is no accident — Bonnard’s art, and indeed his life, came to be dominated by her. She was plagued by concerns about her health, some of these concerns requiring various dietary regimens, others leading to her spending considerable amounts of time ensconced in the bath. This, of course, accounts for the great number of paintings in existence showing Marthe either in the bath or in the process of getting out of it. She also became increasingly reclusive and may have suffered from some sort of persecution complex which led her to disapprove of visits from fellow artists to their home. Not unnaturally their friends referred to her as a demon or a ‘tormenting sprite’. Bonnard, however seems to have borne all this with a resigned fatalism and none of his difficult home life comes through in his paintings — they are full of light and, of course, colour and it is interesting that Marthe always appears in the later paintings as a young woman. Bonnard refused to allow her to age on canvas and so, rather like Dorian Grey, our image of her, via the brush of her husband, remains forever youthful, except that thankfully the paintings did not remain in the attic.


Contemporary Works

1915 Kasemir Malevich: Black Cross, Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne - Centre Georges Pompidou

1915 Juan Gris: Still Life (Fantomas), Washington DC , National Gallery of Art

1915 Pablo PicassoThe Harlequin, New York, Museum of Modern Art

Further Paintings of Interest

Dining Room in the Country

Pierre Bonnard

A Young Woman standing at a Virginal

Johannes Vermeer

Young Woman with a Water Pitcher

Johannes Vermeer