Illustrated companion

This is one of the particularly fine group of works by Bonnard in the collection of the Tate Gallery. Bonnard began his career as a member of the Symbolist group, the Nabis (from the Hebrew word for prophet) in Paris in the 1890s. His work then was strongly influenced by Japanese prints, highly decorative, and included some of the greatest art nouveau posters from the poster boom of that time. In the early years of the twentieth century he painted in a relatively sombre palette, often erotic subjects, but after the First World War he began a new phase in which his sensuous response to the world, including the female body, was reworked in terms of a highly individual sense of colour combined with an equally personal approach to composition. Mainly between 1925 and 1941 Bonnard painted a series of canvases of a woman bathing which are among his most memorable works. The model for all of them was almost certainly his wife Marthe. In this one Bonnard has cut off the bath at both ends and exploited the structure of the wall behind to create a strongly geometric, but not too regular, composition whose rigour balances the extreme sensuousness of the extraordinary pearlescent colours in which he has rendered the nude body lying beneath the water. He has also exploited the white enamel of the bath both to reflect light onto the body and to reflect back the play of colour and light from the water. He has adjusted the viewpoint so that the edge of the bath, the body, the side of the bath and the wall, form a sequence of parallel areas which unify the surface of the canvas.

Bonnard did not paint direct from the model, preferring to work alone and from memory, since he held that too much contact with the original object would destroy his initial vision of it and would prevent him from creating a truly independent work of art. He wrote: 'It is attraction which determines the choice of motif ... if this attraction, this primary conception fades away the painter becomes dominated solely by the motif, the object before him. From that moment he ceases to create his own painting.' It was perhaps this attitude which enabled Bonnard in works like this to achieve such a perfect balance between the painting as an aesthetic structure of pattern and colour, and as an evocation of the sensuous reality of the object which had originally moved him.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.117