An image of Self portrait

Pierre Bonnard

(France 03 Oct 1867 – 23 Jan 1947)

Self portrait

Other titles:
Self portrait in dressing room mirror
Not on display
Further information

A founder member of the French Nabi movement and a radiant colourist, Pierre Bonnard painted almost a dozen self-portraits, most of them in later life. He very rarely dated these works, the first of which he painted while he was an art student of twenty-two, in 1889 (Private Collection). In the 1930s he developed an interest in depicting himself in front of a mirror; the last in this series is thought to have been completed in 1945, two years before his death.1

A self-portrait often implies an artist's direct engagement with a mirror, but unlike the Impressionists, Bonnard did not paint directly from the motif, preferring instead to make drawings, sketches and colour notes and then working up his paintings in the studio. He believed that painters capable of tackling the motif directly were very rare, declaring, 'It is not a matter of painting life. It's a matter of giving life to painting'.2 Like Matisse, he used colour and decoration determined the essential qualities of his art. Bonnard admired not only Japanese prints and screens but also Persian and Indian miniatures, capturing something of their iridescent multiplicity in this self-portrait with its brilliant orchestration of near and far views and its vibrant notes of Indian yellow, ultramarine, emerald green, creamy white and deep, reddish purple. With his eyes half closed behind Ghandi-style glasses, Bonnard cups his hands in a curious gesture, recalling his 1931 self-portrait known as 'The boxer' (Private Collection). But in this later self-portrait his raised hands conceal the initial occasion of his painting - a fleeting glimpse of his mirrored reflection quickly jotted down in a spontaneous drawing small enough to fit in the palm of one hand. It was that invisible little notebook drawing which blossomed over time into a poignant, almost painfully vulnerable self-portrait that fused pigment, flesh and atmosphere.

Fascinated by the possibilities of mirror reflections, Bonnard exploits them for their tantalizingly oblique glimpses into his private realm. In this self-portrait his pulpy, dark-skinned flesh, severed by the mirror's edge and transfixed by a harsh electric light, is squeezed into the narrow space behind the mirror's reflective surface. Our gaze is thence deflected by myriad smaller reflections and by the eyeglasses that mask his modest gaze.

Completed during the increasingly austere and dangerous years of the German Occupation in France, when Bonnard was living in Le Cannet near Cannes, this self-portrait echoes his growing sense of personal fragility and impending mortality. In 1930 the Surrealist poet Louis Aragon predicted: 'painting will become an anodyne amusement for young girls and old provincials'.3 In a post-Cubist climate some avant-garde critics dismissed Bonnard as old-fashioned and irrelevant. Their attacks had disturbed him and may have prompted the series of probing late self-portraits. In deep concentration, with an undiminished desire to understand and fulfil himself as an artist, Bonnard's self-portraits defied the climate of the times: 'I am working a lot, immersed more and more deeply in this outdated passion for painting. Perhaps with a few others, I am one of its last survivors'.4

Ursula Prunster

1. Terrasse called this 'an internal examination of self' which showed an artist who 'lived at a remove from the world, sacrificing all to the passion for art' see Antoine Terrasse, 'Bonnard: The Colour of Daily Life', trans. Laurel Hirsch, Thames and Hudson, London 2000, p.108.

2. Angèle Lamotte, 'Le Bouquet de Roses – Propos de Pierre Bonnard recueillis en 1943', 'Verve 5', nos 17-18 (August 1947) n.p. Bonnard continues: '… those [painters] who were able to extricate themselves from it [the motif] had a very personal defence. Faced with the motif, Cézanne had a solid idea of what he wanted to do - taking from nature only what was relevant to his idea.' See also Bonnard 1946, in Antoine Terrasse, 'Les Notes de Bonnard' in 'Bonnard', Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1984, p.202

3. Louis Aragon, 'La Peinture au défie' quoted in Antoine Terrasse, 2000, p.96

4. Bonnard letter to his nephew, Charles Terrasse, 1933, quoted in Antoine Terrasse, 2000, pp.96-7

circa 1938-circa 1940
oil on canvas
76.2 x 61.0 cm stretcher; 105.0 x 89.0 x 10.5 cm frame
Signature & date

Signed u.r., brown oil "Bonnard". Not dated.

Purchased 1972
Accession number
Pierre Bonnard, circa 1938-1947, France
Bonnard Estate, 1947-1963, France, By descent to his heirs, the Terrasse family 1963; to Wildenstein & Co., 1963
Wildenstein & Co., 1963-1972, New York/New York/United States of America, Purchased by the AGNSW from Wildenstein & Co. 1972.