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Love story in pictures: Bonnard and Marthe, mirrors and bathtubs

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The little theatre of the passions of these two people is something beyond the limits of an ordinary biopic — it is rather a sort of film noir, or decadence, or psychological thriller. The drama of Pierre and Marthe’s love and life presents a soul-stirring storyline illustrated with hundreds of the artist’s pictures. To label their style, art critics even had to invent a special term, intimism.
How cinematic the story is and what genre the film is of, you are welcome to judge yourselves. Here is the summary of the plot. He is an artist who has already got fame, well-educated, smartly tailored, perfectly fitting in the cliché of a bespectacled highbrow. She is his destiny that took the shape of a needlegirl decorating wreaths in a funeral accessories shop, who kept secret her real name and age. The following scenes include his parents' disapproval of the son’s misalliance, the reclusive life due to the mistress’s phobias, the eventually long and strong partnership and marriage, the final part of which was unsettled by a femme fatale, a blonde who killed herself…
Besides, there are Marthe’s nude photographs taken by her husband, and his nearly four hundred pictures of her, sometimes clothed, but most typically naked.

Pierre Bonnard. Nude in the Bath
Nude in the Bath
1935, 104.8×65.4 cm
The spectators, on having thumbed quickly through these pictures, remain burning with curiosity: how these two happened to bump into each other? Where and how they lived? How were treated by their Nabi friends? And here comes she — the other one. A revolver, a bed of flowers — the perfect score to show them on screen would be Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue’s song Where the Wild Roses Grow. And showing them on screen, against all calculations, should be some minutes prior to the final titles where lonely, aged Bonnard is presented portraying young naked Marthe in the bathroom. Martha, who has been no more for several years…
And the production of the film begins in Paris.


Pierre Bonnard. Self-Portrait

In 1893, when Pierre Bonnard (1867—1947) met Marthe, he was a young man who had already found his true vocation. A son of well-off, respectable parents, he studied law alongside attending art classes at the Académie Julian, till he was able to astound his father by succeeding in the job he himself preferred. His father, a prominent official of the French Ministry of War, was thrilled to bits that an advertising bill by his adolescent son could be seen in all its beauty throughout Paris, receiving great critical acclaim, — and forgave him giving up the career of a lawyer he had once dreamed his son would follow. Not just forgave — he nearly danced for joy! And his son, whose artistic ideas made him side with Les Nabis, successfully exhibited his works in the Salon des Indépendants in 1891.

Pierre Bonnard. Florist
Florist
1905, 105×177 cm
No wonder that in his day-to-day walks about the city, the women he met were not just women for him, but he saw in them models for his pictures to be painted. Was she one of these? Quite possible. She called herself Marthe de Méligny and told him she was no older than sixteen (with eight years undercalculated). According to some accounts, he met that frail girl in the streets of Paris when she was getting off a horsecar across the street. Very soon, though, Pierre cast her in a far more intimate role. The two young people fixed up that she would sit to him for money, and she did become his model, and his lover, too, — during her very first sitting, on the very day they met. Oh, the times! oh, the morals of the Belle Époque!
Pierre Bonnard. Siesta
Siesta
1900, 109×132 cm
But even for all the frivolousness of those days, it is absolutely astonishing how careless the man was as for finding out the basic information about his mistress, although they lived together for years, and breathed the same air. It would not have been that bad if it had only been about her age — but for over three centuries, Bonnard remained unaware that the aristocratic Marthe de Méligny was but a disguise for the real and quite prosaic Maria Boursin! Edmonde Charles-Roux in L’Irreguliere ou mon itineraire Chanel characterises her as a midinette faffing around in a funeral wreaths shop. She was Marthe — that was enough.
She had left her previous life behind, in the country town of Saint-Amand-Montrond. She, a carpenter’s daughter, had left the place for Paris breaking off the connection with her family. For years, legalising the relations between Marthe and the young man of a higher social rank was out of the question — despite the magic word de that Marthe had added to her new name when she started her new life. Bonnard never insisted that his soulmate disclose her details. Nevertheless, he did suspect something — perhaps, that was the reason why he wanted no truth. ‘A marriage for love is one when a wealthy man marries a pretty and rich girl' — that is one of Bonnard’s aphorisms.
In Paris, Pierre and Marthe rented a modest studio flat. It is very unlikely that the painter introduced his girlfriend to his family. They got along well, for she turned out to be as perfect a model for his work as he had dreamed of: delicate, electric, and absolutely shameless — sometimes even in a quite asexual way. Or, perhaps, it is how Marthe is presented to us by Bonnard, who intimately, without any affectation, shares with us what he sees himself.
Pierre Bonnard. The effect of the mirror (or the Bathroom)
Pierre Bonnard
1909, 73×84.5 cm
Pierre Bonnard. In the bathroom
Pierre Bonnard
1907, 106×71.3 cm
Pierre Bonnard. Exit from the bath
Pierre Bonnard
1911
Pierre Bonnard. Woman with black stockings
Pierre Bonnard
1900
In his book Breakfast at Sotheby’s: An A—Z of the Art World, Philip Hook writes, ‘Pierre Bonnard … lived a private life of quiet domesticity apparently punctuated (to judge from his subject matter) only by the regularity with which his wife took baths.'

Marthe’s illness

Marthe’s health was never too strong, and she always felt like getting unsettled. Researchers are not quite certain about how the lifestyle of Bonnard’s muse was related to her supposed illness. There might have been a sort of nervous collapse that made her have a bath as often as two or three times a day. This, presumably, resulted in a dermal disease, and eventually, she could no longer do without her baths that were a temporary relief from pain. However, it is possible, too, that the reason and the result were reverse: a disease (TB or something dermal), then baths to relieve the pain, and nervous compulsiveness in the end. The open air was not Marthe’s cup of tea, either: she was quite able to get out of home, but it was staying within the confines of four walls that had become her rule. As time passed, Bonnard had to make it his habit, too.
A fact almost mystical: in 1898, Peter Nansen’s novel Marie was published. It was illustrated by Pierre Bonnard (photos 1, 2, 3), who used his sweetheart as a model though he did not know her real name yet. And in 1925, we could see that book in a picture of his. It was the year when Maria became known under her real name and firmly established herself in the painter’s life — now through a legal marriage.
Pierre Bonnard. Window
Window
1925, 128.3×109.4 cm

Apart from the baths

What was she like — she, the woman we can so often see in the pictures, but whose image still remains so indiscernible? Man Booker-winning author Julian Barnes, in an essay from his book Keeping an Eye Open, made a smart observation that ‘Bonnard isn’t painting Marthe’s likeness (let alone her character) so much as her presence and its effect.'

Pierre Bonnard. Mar in red blouse

The Impressionists' legendary muse commonly known as Misia, Bonnard’s early patroness (in the picture, she is portrayed wearing yellow, beside Marthe, who is wearing a red blouse), was of a more substantial opinion. In her memoirs, she, in a few Impressionist strokes, described Marthe as a sylphlike girl, with her wild look of a bird, her movement on tiptoe.

Pierre Bonnard. Reine Natanson and Marthe in a Red Blouse. 1928

Timothy Hyman, today’s famous British writer and painter, shares this opinion. In his study
A study is an exercise painting that helps the painter better understand the object he or she paints. It is simple and clear, like sample letters in a school student’s copybook. Rough and ready, not detailed, with every stroke being to the point, a study is a proven method of touching the world and making a catalogue of it. However, in art history, the status of the study is vague and open to interpretation. Despite its auxiliary role, a study is sometimes viewed as something far more significant than the finished piece. Then, within an impressive frame, it is placed on a museum wall.
So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? Read more
of Bonnard, he qualifies Marthe as ‘a touchy elf … who dressed eccentrically, who hopped about on very high heels like some bright-plumaged bird.' For all that, she, like Bonnard, was fond of cats and dogs.
But Marthe’s speech was ‘weirdly savage and brash.' She was really possessive. She, who came from a small country town, had nothing to speak on with Bonnard’s well-educated friends — she quite disliked them all. She had no idea that there had been a split in the group of Les Nabis
The Nabis (Les Nabis), a group of French painters, are difficult to classify as fully belonging to a major artistic trend like Impressionism, Expressionism, or Art Nouveau. Though contemporaries of all these powerful movements, the Nabi artists directed their art along a narrow and winding course somewhere in between. Read more
, though it was actually her to blame for it. Not quite her, but rather a picture of her — too sultry, in Maurice Denis’s opinion, which was contrary to the group’s ideas of the search of perfect, absolute beauty.

She was born a self-sufficient woman — or had to become one. Had Pierre Bonnard not been an introvert, would he have been satisfied with years of such a life? Life, in which meeting friends was something almost secret, and his own home — something lifeless, reclusive, unstable? The couple kept moving house in search of somewhere perfectly comfortable for his companion and muse. After 1900, they went into a self-imposed exile, having left Paris for a number of towns on the banks of the Seine. However, there was quite a lot of idyll, too: fishing, tea-time, resting in armchairs on the lawn in front of the house, with a dog beside, or a cat on the lap.
Even being a hermitess’s partner, Pierre Bonnard was by no means averse to socialising and meeting people. He took part in exhibitions, worked for the theatre, travelled a lot, and visited a number of countries. He was not always as contemplative and absent-minded a person as some photos and self-portraits suggest, where he has a look as if he does not belong in this world (which is quite typical of a short-sighted person). Alexandre Benois, who met Bonnard dozens of times, noted his specifically French, sarcastic intellect. And that intellect was always lucky in finding a task, that only a certain woman beside was able to help solve.

Pierre Bonnard. The sun
The sun
1908, 125×109 cm

Marthe as an ABC

In Bonnard’s view, everything about Marthe was different — her postures, her movements, her very presence in the interior. She would drink tea, have long baths feeling not a bit of shame, she was always ready to pose — lying motionless in bed, or putting on her shoes, or taking off stockings. Indeed, it is through Marthe that we can see how Bonnard was successively influenced by Japanese printmakers, Gauguin, Cézanne, Degas, how he abandoned the modernist painting and was attracted by Impressionism, how his palette and brushwork changed over time. It was through her that the painter could display his talent of catching the spirit of the moment.
Generally, Bonnard painted from memory, except perhaps for making pencil sketches from life. He said, ‘The important thing is to remember what most impressed you and to put it on canvas as fast as possible.'

The invention of the portable Kodak camera in 1888 marked a new era for painters, too. Photographs became a useful aid in their work. Bonnard, too, shared the general enthusiasm about the new trend. He started taking photoshoots — all featuring Marthe, of course. Interestingly, he quite rarely based his further canvases on certain photos of Marthe. He rather used the photographs, as art historians state, to work out a sort of plastic ABC of different postures. And it gives us an opportunity to see the real interior of the bathroom, the real mirrors in it.

Marthe in the bathroom. 1908. Photo from here.

Occasionally, these, so to say, photo reviews were a sort of role-play. For example, once having been commissioned for a series of illustrations to a new edition of Daphnis and Chloe, he did a preparatory photoshoot of naked Marthe in the garden. The photos survived, but the ones of the artist himself, taken by Marthe on the same occasion at his request, are now lost.

Where is the secret garden?

After 1900, Bonnard was spending more and more time with Marthe away from the capital. His Parisian studio, though, he kept reserving to himself. Now he could afford moving house, for at that time, in the early 1900s, he was already successful enough as a painter. The public, dumbfounded by how frequently art had been changing its vector, and later, weary of the trials and troubles of World War I, were happy to find shelter in the serene port of his pictures. People were captivated by the subject matters, colour combinations, brushwork, and specific, nearly cinematographic, magnetism of a woman and a man, the latter remaining off-screen — his presence could only be guessed from a detail like a smoking pipe on the table… Bonnard portrayed children, too. He did not happen to have his own ones, but his sister had two.

Pierre Bonnard. Ball game
Ball game
1905, 53×75 cm
Starting from 1907 and throughout the 1910s, the painter travelled a lot. Holland, Belgium, England, Italy, Spain, Algeria, Tunisia… On those trips, he did not take Marthe along — and she did have reasons to be jealous. Though he had painted other nude models in her presence before — we can see it in a picture of 1908, — but having affairs was something different, far more serious.
Nevertheless, in 1912, the artist and Marthe took their residence in a cottage near Vernon, and he went on painting her life. His series of pictures of interiors would have been impossible without Marthe. No, she did not withdraw into the shadows — Bonnard just believed that ‘a figure should be a part of the background against which it is placed.' However, he himself, every now and then, left for Giverny, about five kilometres away from his dwelling place, to speak to Claude Monet, get an eyeful of the views of the marvellous garden, and learn what was new in the Impressionist guild, through contemplating the begetter of the movement’s collection of works by Delacroix, Renoir, Cézanne
Pierre Bonnard. Interior
Pierre Bonnard
1913, 56×63 cm
Pierre Bonnard. After a bath
Pierre Bonnard
1914
Claude Monet and Pierre Bonnard in Giverny. Photo from: picssr.com

The Roman holiday and the white cat

‘One does not always sing out of happiness,' said Bonnard. His pictures, however, were becoming brighter and more colourful, blazed and shone with amber light. And he himself very nearly got married — not to Marthe. And the whole business could hardly have ended up in a worse way.

Being already on the wrong side of fifty, in 1918, in the south of France, Bonnard met a blonde named Renée Montchaty. The beginning of the affair was typical: the painter persuaded the girl into sitting to him, and soon, he started openly living with her. What is more, Renée was a beginner artist, so the master and his new muse had a lot of common topics for discussion. Undoubtedly, she posed to her lover, that cat of a woman (the surname Montchaty sounds very close to mon chat — ‘my cat'). And Bonnard was fond of portraying lithe-bodied creatures.

Pierre Bonnard. Portrait of Mademoiselle Renee Moneti
Pierre Bonnard. The woman behind the Desk
Pierre Bonnard
1923, 65×42 cm
Pierre Bonnard. Green blouse
Pierre Bonnard
1919, 101×68 cm
Marthe knew and saw everything. Pierre kept on his relationship with her, thus forming a classical ménage à trios for years and years. In 1921, Pierre and Renée went together on a trip to Rome, and in the same year, he made his companion a proposal of marriage.
But could some twenty portraits of Renée outweigh Marthe’s hundreds? Perhaps, the latter gave him an ultimatum. He must have chosen Marthe, and almost 33 years after they first met, on 15 August 1925, Pierre and Marthe legally became husband and wife.

Pierre Bonnard. Mar Bonnard
Mar Bonnard
1925, 79×50 cm
Renée killed herself a month after their wedding.
There is a legend that Bonnard found Renée's dead body in the bathtub, and another one, that she actually shot herself lying in her bed among the flowers she had put round herself. Both the versions are but allusions to the sharpest vertex of the love triangle — to Marthe. Bathtubs mean Marthe. Flowers and death imply Marthe, too, for she once used to attach decorative flowers to funeral wreaths. Bonnard, till the end of his days, kept pictures of Renée with him. And the canvas portraying both Renée and Marthe he even repainted — years later, when neither of the women was alive. Renée, in the centre, almost glowing, draws the viewer’s eye. Marthe is practically indiscernible.

Big things: a villa, a bathtub, a mirror

But so far, his life with Marthe was still going on. In the winter of 1926, Pierre Bonnard bought, for 50,000 francs, a grand villa Le Bosquet on the French Riviera, in the town of Le Cannet. It was as if his dream materialised — his own house, and his wife’s own bathroom. It gave its colours to Marthe’s new portraits. The woman is always slender and young in the painter’s canvases.

Pierre Bonnard. Palma
Pierre Bonnard
1926, 147×114.3 cm
Pierre Bonnard. Nude next to the tub
Pierre Bonnard
1931, 120×110 cm
Meanwhile, his wife’s health was getting worse, so the couple usually spent hot summer months in Normandy.
Marthe’s character was becoming more and more distressing. In 1930, the painter wrote in a letter, ‘For quite some time now I have been living a very secluded life as Marthe has become completely anti-social and I am obliged to avoid all contact with other people.'

The war and the last years

Now, World War II having broken out, the Pierre and Marthe film turns black and white. Bonnard bargained away his pictures or bartered them for food. His works still cost a lot, but the master did not want to make a profit in the time so hard for all. Due to his good reputation of a citizen of honour, the mayor’s office of Le Cannet promised to give him an extra food ration, which he would have to wait for. Besides, he was in need of paints, but later, his friends sent him some.

January of 1942 put an end to Marthe’s life: she passed away on the 26th, because of cardiac arrest. Her heart stopped — so did Bonnard’s life.
In 1944, Henri Cartier-Bresson visited Bonnard and took a number of photos. The man in them looks a sheer ghost — a lonely and small figure in his big empty rooms.
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Photo by Pierre Bonnard. 1944. From: honigbrote. de
In 1945, shortly before the war was over, Bonnard made a trip to Paris. He took no great interest in the city’s life and rallies — thus, while visiting the Louvre, he remarked, ‘The best things in museums are the windows.' Back to Le Cannet, the painter was accompanied by his niece Renée Terrasse — she would bring some joy into his lonely life. Bonnard held correspondence with his friend Matisse, who lived in Nice, and discussed with him little things of everyday life, ranging from the current prices to health. Marthe stayed with him, too. The work he had started shortly before her death he only completed five years later — he painted a nude in the bathroom again and again.
The painter departed this life on 23 January 1947. His villa on the French Riviera now houses Musée Bonnard (Bonnard's Museum). Any exhibition of his works held nowadays is a story of Pierre and Marthe — a very private one.

Text by: Olga Potekhina
Artists mentioned in the article
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