'This painting has taught me a lot, not lest about design, but also transports me to somewhere calm'
The Bath, 1925, by Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947), 311⁄2in by 471⁄2in, Tate Collection, London
Lauren Child says:
It was in the Tate as a child that I fell in love with Bonnard – perhaps because, when I looked at his paintings, I felt I could step into them. Then, this picture always made me uncomfortable, poor Mrs Bonnard lying there in her bath for all to see. Later, I saw she is not the subject at all, only part of a beautiful abstract, a surface divided by rectangles of yellow, lilac, blue-green and pink, subtle complementary colour creating light. The dark hair shape describing how the head tilts, the tiny face (the only detail in the picture) holds the focus. This painting has taught me a lot, not lest about design, but also transports me to somewhere calm.
Lauren Child is an illustrator and author. Her retrospective exhibition is at the National Trust’s Mottisfont until September 6. Her latest picture book, Charlie and Lola: One Thing, will be published on October 1
John McEwen comments:
Bonnard shone at classics and his father, a high-ranking civil servant, expected him to follow in his footsteps, but Bonnard chose art. ‘What attracted me was less art itself than the artist’s life… to live as one pleased,’ he later explained.
A crucial influence was Gauguin, who wrote: ‘Painting must return to its original purpose, the examination of the interior life of human beings.’ Japanese art and culture (Japonisme) was the fashionable rage, not least, to Bonnard, for the way it showed people’s posture and movement.
In 1893, he met a pretty waif on the street, the so-called 16- year-old Marthe de Méligny. She became his lifelong muse. She was secretive, mercurial and increasingly neurotic, hiding under an umbrella whatever the weather. His friends called her his ‘muse and gaoler’. only when they married, in the year of this painting, did he discover she was Maria Boursin and almost 10 years older than she claimed.
Bonnard became the painter’s painter supreme. From 1927, he and Marthe spent most of their reclusive time at a modest villa near Cannes. Marthe washed continually. This may not have been entirely neurotic: when she died in 1942, it was from tubercular laryngitis, for which frequent submersions were prescribed. The bathroom was the setting for many of his pictures of her and, always, she was shown as the young woman he had first met.
Bonnard did escape enough to have the odd dalliance. In 1925, a much younger painter, with whom he had had a brief affair, killed herself. His art is often considered the epitome of douceur de vie, but is more complicated than that might suggest.