In 1912, Bonnard purchased a home in rural Vernonette, not far from Monet's Giverny. He also traveled and spent a good deal of time in the south of France on the Mediterranean. His discovery of the shimmering light and color in both rural Normandy and the south resulted in an explosion of color and light in his paintings. Among Bonnard's greatest masterpieces surely we must count the great painting Le Cabinet de toilette
(also known as The Bottle of Perfume
A light worthy of Turner pours down like liquid through the delicate lace curtains and shatters the forms into a thousand glittering points of pure color... not unlike a Byzantine mosaic. Marthe, who is now already in her 40s, is lovingly seen as a beautiful goddess... forever young... anointing herself from the glowing bottle of perfume.
Like the great French writer of the period, Marcel Proust, Bonnard's art is rooted in the sensation of memories. He rarely ever painted from life. Most of his paintings began with the simplest notation of thumbnail sketch. The painting then evolved... ever so slowly... in the studio until the artist had transformed the most mundane personal experience into something magical... a personal mythology or fantastic fairy tale.
This magic can be seen in the other nudes paintings of Marthe of the period:
This magical explosion of color can also be seen in the domestic interior scenes of the era. The interiors of this time are almost stifling with the suggestion of heat and humidity... all conveyed through color. As Matisse himself was to admit, Bonnard may just have been the greatest colorist of all:
Bonnard also began to explore landscape with a level of intensity not seen since the Impressionists. These too were infused with hot, sensual color
By the end of the 1920s Bonnard was one of the most successful and in-demand painters in Europe. Russian collectors Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov obsessively collected Bonnard along with Matisse... until the Russian Revolution. The French government offered the Légion d'honneur, but the painter, ever modest, refused. Of course not everyone was supportive of Bonnard. Pablo Picasso called Bonnard "hideous" and "not really a modern painter - a decadent, the end of an old idea". And when Bonnard died in 1947, Clement Greenberg remarked that his art "smells permanently of the fashions of 1900-14, expressing as it does the desire of the French middle classes to make history stop and stand still at 1912". The great photographer, Cartier-Bresson, however, exclaimed “You know, Picasso didn’t like Bonnard and I can imagine why, because Picasso had no tenderness. It is only a very flat explanation to say that Bonnard is looking in a mirror in this painting. He’s looking far, far beyond. To me he is the greatest painter of the century. Picasso was a genius, but that is something quite different.”
By the 1920s Bonnard was at the height of his career, but there were underlying problems with his personal life. His long-time lover, Marthe suffered from unknown mental problems and exhibited symptoms of paranoia and obsessive-compulsive behavior that made life difficult for the artist... and more difficult for him to maintain close friendships. During this time Bonnard had several affairs, the most important being with the beautiful Renée Monchaty.
Renée had befriended both Bonnard and his wife and acted as a model for the painter. By 1918 the two had become lovers. In 1921 they would spend several weeks together in Rome. In the painting, Young Women in the Garden
, begun in 1923, Renée looks up joyfully at the viewer/artist as he comes upon her sitting in the sun on the terrace. She is bathed in light... but almost lost to our view on the right is Marthe... also looking on Renée... jealously? Martha was known for her jealous outbursts... but is it possible that there may be something more than coincidence to the fact that suddenly, without notice to family, Bonnard walked Marthe down the aisle in a civil service in 1925... and a month later Renée Monchaty committed suicide in a Paris hotel room? Bonnard was so deeply distressed he refused to part with any of Renée's letters or any paintings of the beautiful young woman. Following Marthe's death in 1942, Bonnard, then nearing 75 years old, reworked this painting, giving Renée angelic, golden hair and soft, glowing blue eyes and infusing the entire painting with a golden yellow light.
As Bonnard grew older a subtle sense of melancholia enters into his paintings... beautiful as the continue to be. Marthe, who compulsively bathed repeatedly each day, remained a frequent subject matter... but there were also subtle hints of something darker... look... as she floats in her bath she might almost appear as a corpse in a coffin:
But the artist is not sparing of himself. In a self-portrait entitled The Boxer, the artist sees himself as a tragicomic hero:
Indeed, none of the artist's late self-assessments are overly flattering: