In the Bathroom is a relatively early example of Bonnard’s much-loved theme of the female nude at her toilette, a subject which would preoccupy him throughout his career. In this work, the figure, naked except for low-heeled red shoes, stands almost facing the viewer, drying her back with a towel. Behind her are a dressing table with mirror and a shallow bathing tub. She is illuminated by an unseen window to the left. Her body is highlighted with white and yellow tones painted in loose strokes. The same flashes of broken colour appear on the folds of the dressing table valance and the mirror, suggesting the play of light in the room.
Bonnard’s model for In the Bathroom was Marthe de Méligny, formerly Maria Boursin (1869–1942), who was the artist’s companion from 1893 until her death. The couple would marry in 1925. Bonnard painted Marthe over 300 times during the course of his career and frequently portrayed her in the process of washing, dressing, undressing or reading within interior settings. In the Bathroom is a relatively large painting, measuring over a metre in height, and the central placing of the standing nude creates a monumental image. The tight shallow space of the composition emphasises the enclosed space of the woman’s private realm and involves the viewer in the artist’s observation of her. This work shows Bonnard’s awareness of Edgar Degas’s series of nudes from the 1880s and 1890s in which Degas (1834–1917) portrayed women washing, often in awkward, spontaneous poses. The older artist’s works frequently featured the traditional type of zinc bathing tub which also appears in In the Bathroom. As Degas had done before him, Bonnard concentrates on a mundane activity of everyday life, rather than an idealised, mythological subject.
The lighting effects achieved in In the Bathroom, in which direct light enters the space from a source beyond the frame and leaves the recesses of the room in darkness, is typical of Bonnard’s works of the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries. The contrast between light and dark and the effects of shadow are used to heighten the sense of the transience of the moment depicted. This sensation is suggested too in his depiction of the fluid motion of the towel with which Marthe dries herself.
In Bonnard’s early career, photography played a crucial part in his preparations for paintings of Marthe naked. Between 1900 and 1901, he took photographs of Marthe and himself in the garden of their rented house in Montval, outside Paris. These images include one in which Marthe stands upright with her body positioned towards the light at a forty-five degree angle from the camera lens and with her head slightly tilted (reproduced in Bonnard: The Work of Art: Suspending Time, no.P13 p.116), a pose resembling that of the figure in In the Bathroom.
Bonnard lived and worked mainly in Paris during his early and mature career. In 1907, when this painting was produced, his studio was in the rue de Douai, near the Place Pigalle.
Nicholas Watkins, Bonnard, London 1994, reproduced p.111 as Dans le cabinet de toilette.
Sarah Whitfield and John Elderfield, Bonnard, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1998.
Bonnard: The Work of Art: Suspending Time, exhibition catalogue, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 2006.