Text by Deanna MacDonald
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This nude was completed when Bonnard was almost 70 and is considered to be among his crowning achievements as an artist. Visually it is stunning; a shimmering vision of luminous colour and light on flesh. Though in the most banal of settings – a modern bathroom of linoleum, ceramic tile and enamelled bath – the atmosphere is both cosily tranquil and sensual, suggesting voyeuristic pleasure. It is not for nothing that Bonnard has been called the master of domestic hedonism.
The bather is Marthe, Bonnard’s lifelong companion and model, whom he depicted in at least 384 of his works, many of them on the theme of bathing. Here she is viewed from above and while her face is not visible her body is: long and slender, blurred in the movement of the blue/mauve/green water. The white tub becomes the receptacle for her body where she lies like Ophelia – a poetic form floating but vibrantly alive. There is something almost hallucinatory about the image, as if Marthe was seconds away from metamorphosing into pure colour.
Bonnard’s early nudes of Marthe are sensual, verging on risqué. But later works like this one are less erotic, more mature. His late style is lyrical, characterized by an intensity of texture, pattern and colour which he filters though his emotions and memories. Bonnard rarely painted from life but instead made sketches in a diary, noting things like colour, tone and contrast, which he later worked out in his studio.
So this was not meant as a faithful portrait of Marthe; it is in fact far closer to metaphor or memory, than reality. In 1937 Marthe was ill and in her 60s, so this dreamy image is in fact the artist’s memory of perception, desire and affection.
Like many great artist/muse relationships, that of Bonnard and Marthe was complicated. Bonnard was born into the haute bourgeoisie and trained as a lawyer. But he had a talent for painting and a taste for the demimonde; by the early 1890s he was living in Montmartre as an artist and had become a member of the Nabis (Hebrew for ‘Prophets’), a group of young painters who worshiped Gauguin and colour, and as Bonnard later recalled, ‘envisaged a popular art that was of everyday application’. Bonnard was called the ‘Japanese Nabi’ for his love of the surprising angles, flat colours and intimate domestic scenes to be found Japanese prints.
Around this time he met a diminutive, working class girl who called herself ‘Marthe de Meligny,’ and almost immediately she became his model and lover. Only decades later did he learn that her name was actually Maria Boursin and that she was 24 when they met. Described as timid and birdlike, she was not popular among his friends. In 1918 Bonnard began an affair with a tall, blonde model named Renée Monchaty; but he never left Marthe and even painted the two women together. Finally in 1925 Bonnard married Marthe; a month later Renée killed herself.
It was also in 1925 that Bonnard first pictured his wife full-length in the bath. Marthe had always had a fondness for bathing. Some suggested this was a reflection of a manic personality; however it may simply have been a therapy for a skin ailment and the tubercular laryngitis, which Marthe suffered from and eventually died of in 1942. Either way, it became a defining theme for Bonnard, a quiet and retiring man whom a colleague once fondly described as ‘capable of embellishing all the ugly things of our life with the ingenious and iridescent flowerings of his imagination’.
1936 Vasily Kandinsky: Dominant Curve, New York, Guggenheim Museum
1937 Salvador Dalí: Metamorphosis of Narcissus, London, Tate
1937 Georges Rouault: The Old King, Pittsburgh, Carnegie Institute Museum of Art