Bonnard was aged about seventy when he painted this scene of boats in a bay. He used a formerly complex compositional structure built up with intersecting lines. The resulting image creates a sense of the particularity of this view of two moored yachts and the panorama beyond them, and the abstract effects suggested in the scene by form, colour and light.
The composition is divided vertically by the mast of the white yacht in the foreground, which is placed off-centre to the left and extends to the upper border of the canvas. In the background, the distant shore, composed of strips of blue, yellow and green, splits the scene in half horizontally. Further horizontal lines are created in the foreground by the orange and lilac deck of the white yacht, its furled sail above, and its white bowsprit that extends to the right almost the length of the canvas. The bowsprit cuts across the hull of the second yacht, the yellow boat of the work’s title, which dominates the composition’s lower right zone. To Bonnard, the effect of the evening light on the hull creates a glowing field of yellow that suffuses the area around it. On the extreme right is the outline of a man, apparently walking along a jetty in front of the yellow boat. He appears to be moving out of the frame and facing the setting sun, as his body seems absorbed in the boat’s leaching yellowness. In contrast to the warm atmosphere of this corner, the sea is composed of white bobbled with green, which, like the flickering white and yellow of the sky, hint at coldness.
Scenes of boats and harbours constitute a small but significant part of Bonnard’s landscape output. It was this artist’s practice to paint in the studio using sketches, rather than out of doors. He tended to work on an unstretched canvas pinned to his wall. His method was slow and he was known for frequently returning to paintings over time to retouch them. Although it is not known exactly where he produced The Yellow Boat, he spent most of 1936 and 1937 in Deauville on the coast of Normandy, France, renting a villa with a view across the River Touques to Trouville-sur-Mer. In 1936 Bonnard started a painting of Trouville harbour, which he would not finish for a decade. In this work, Le Port de Trouville 1936–46 (Musee National d’Art Moderne, Paris, reproduced in Watkins, p.223), as in The Yellow Boat, he used extensive areas of yellow, composing a golden-yellow sky with broad passages of thickly applied paint. Bonnard is said to have remarked, ‘you can’t have too much yellow’ (quoted in Wilson, p.74), which seems to hold particularly true in these works.
In 1937, in Deauville, Bonnard gave an interview to the Swedish journalist Ingrid Rydbeck in which he said: ‘If one just has a colour to start out from then one builds the whole painting around it. Colour has just a strong a logic as form. It’s a matter of never giving up before one has managed to recreate the first impression.’ (Quoted in Watkins, pp. 219–20.)
Annette Vaillant, Bonnard, London 1966, reproduced p.210.
Nicholas Watkins, Bonnard: Colour and Light, London 1998.
Andrew Wilson (ed.), The Simon Sainsbury Bequest to Tate and the National Gallery, London 2008, reproduced p.75.