Pierre Bonnard<br/>
<em>Coffee</em> (<em>Le Café</em>) 1915<br/>
oil on canvas<br/>
73.0 × 106.5 cm<br/>
Tate, London<br/>
Presented by Sir Michael Sadler through the NACF, 1941 (N05414)<br/>
Photo © Tate

In his lifetime (1867–1947) Pierre Bonnard was acknowledged as a modern master of the domestic landscape – the bathtub, the sitting room, the dining room and the veranda. Of the more than one hundred artworks coming to NGV International for the Melbourne Winter Masterpieces® exhibition,  the greater number, and the finest, are set within the interior. Why? Art historian Dr Georgina Downey explores Bonnard’s fascination with everyday life at home.

For Pierre Bonnard, the ordinary, domestic, intimate, interior provided boundless opportunities for his lifelong pursuit of the ‘adventures of the optic nerve’.1

From the late 1880s, from his membership of the Nabi Brotherhood (with Édouard Vuillard, Paul Sérusier, Maurice Denis and Theodore Roussel) to his magisterial final interiors at Le Bosquet, Bonnard’s concern was consistently with the domestic interior – its scenes, its hidden emotional currents and its essential mystery.

Interiors (that is, views within rooms) of women and men in houses, and his own speculative looking beyond rooms through windows into landscape, account for a huge percentage of Bonnard’s subject matter. However, representing the interior in his painting practice was only one element in the broad and deep engagement he had with the domestic realm over a lifetime.

Pierre Bonnard<br/>
<em>The window</em> (<em>La Fen&ecirc;tre</em>) 1925<br/>
oil on canvas<br/>
108.6 &times; 88.6 cm<br/>
Tate, London<br/>
Presented by Lord Ivor Spencer Churchill through the Contemporary Art Society, 1930 (N04494)<br/>
Photo &copy; Tate

Correspondingly, he also had a discernible aesthetic interest in the decoration of his own homes.

But why? In the West, by the turn of twentieth century, the domestic interior was emerging as the ‘universe’ of the modern individual. Two of the great thinkers of the age had pronounced it thus. In 1917, to rapt audiences in Vienna, Sigmund Freud had explained how the Unconscious works, by sing a simple analogy to rooms: ‘let us therefore compare the system of the Unconscious to a large entrance hall … adjoining a drawing room … [and on the threshold between] … a watchman performs his functions’.2  Not long after, the philosopher, Walter Benjamin claimed that for the nineteenth century individual; ‘the interior, represents the universe … [it is his (sic)] box in the theatre of the world’.3

Thanks to both, we saw pivotal shifts in what we think of as interiority. So, during the final years of the nineteenth century in France, when the young Bonnard was forming his ideas as an artist, his ‘world’ was undergoing a preoccupation with inner space. His preoccupation with domestic space as a significant locale of thought and experimentation, not only drove revolutions in psychological medicine, it also drove consumer culture, the commodification of things; the ever more sophisticated forms of mass production and marketing of objects and goods for the home.

In the fine arts in France, this preoccupation with interiority was expressed as a deep concern with the meanings contained within a personal habitat or dwelling. Not only was the interior undergoing a revolution, but also, at the same time that Bonnard was entering the art world, the interior had its own art movements, into which he was swept. The Intimiste, Symbolist and Decadent movements in France were at their height.

Both the Intimistes and the Symbolists were a radical ‘counter-culture’ who emerged in the twilight years of the nineteenth century. They rejected the science and  rationalism of the new technological and industrial age, along with its associated style of Naturalism in the visual arts. Instead, the Intimistes, Symbolists and Decadents considered that modern individuals operated on an existential spectrum; and that there are other realms, worlds, powers ‘out there’ just beyond the limit of ordinary vision and that was the job of art, among other disciplines, to reflect upon and hint at the Unknown. They were drawn thus to depicting ‘threshold zones’ in the home; doorways, window, the uncanny effects of light and dark. The threshold zones; windows, doorways; alcoves; were conceived by the nineteenth century Decadents and Symbolists [both in the visual and literary arts] as interstitial spaces. And they were about connecting the Unknown worlds to the Known ones of ordinary vision via these particular cross-over zones. Essentially, they were architectural openings, both within the material realm of the standard modern flat or home, but also relayed to the Imaginary realm.

Encountering a threshold zone for an occupant, might mean, they’ve moved from one space to another, or it might mean the embrace a different psychical ‘mein’ or state’. Threshold Zones were thus openings to the Great Unknown, they were also access points, weak points in terms of security.

These zones have actually defined our horror/thriller and visual culture throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. They often appear in later Bonnard interior views.

Accordingly, as a young artist in Paris in the 1880s and 1890s, Bonnard had designed experimental theatre sets for the Symbolists’ Théâtre de l’Œuvre, incorporating the ‘threshold’ zones. In 1895 he had also designed commercially for the interior, with a stained glass window for Siegfried Bing’s radical ‘Maison de l’Art Nouveau’, a kind of ‘House of Tomorrow’ for Parisian audiences, where showrooms were set up like apartments and decorated with furniture, paintings, sculptures and prints.

Additionally, from the period of his life as a young artist, to his late marriage in 1925, Bonnard had also rented and furnished, or bought and furnished, numerous of his own interiors, all in his own taste, idiosyncratic style, from the Parisian garrets of his youth, to villas in West Paris, to his country house at Vernon, Giverny, the charming ‘Ma Roulotte’ (‘my caravan’).

So by the time Bonnard and his life partner, Marthe,decided to settle at one house rather than rotating through many, Bonnard had already had a lengthy engagement with all aspects of the interior, from the mystical, to the commercial. When Bonnard purchased their ultimate home in 1926, ‘Le Bosquet’, a little two storey house in the Riviera village of Le Cannet, just above Cannes, he was poised to produce his magisterial late interiors. Upon moving in to the Le Cannet house, the couple only made a few changes to the villa; Bonnard commissioned a new bathroom, replete with green and white tiles, and asked the carpenter for more built-in storage space in the downstairs and upstairs dining rooms. Their home at Le Cannet was decorated, as we know from accounts from friends and family, and from photographs by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï and Gisèle Freund, in a ‘modest’ yet arty fashion. We can see from his own post-1925 Le Bosquet interiors, that Marthe and Pierre surrounded themselves with simple and honest, almost ‘folk’ furniture pieces, made from cheaper wood, and oen over-painted in the same pastel tones that seem to have sprung from Bonnard’s own palette.

Recognisable also among their smaller belongings, were their tabletop ‘treasures’. The treasures were a humble array of dishes, jugs, platters, coffee pots and so forth, furnishings and ‘swapped’ artworks with friends, which followed the Bonnards everywhere from Paris to regional France.

Pierre Bonnard<br/>
<em>Coffee</em> (<em>Le Caf&eacute;</em>) 1915<br/>
oil on canvas<br/>
73.0 &times; 106.5 cm<br/>
Tate, London<br/>
Presented by Sir Michael Sadler through the NACF, 1941 (N05414)<br/>
Photo &copy; Tate

The beauty to Bonnard of the treasures was that he was so familiar with them. They appear over and over again in many of Bonnard’s tabletop and interior views. They were also crucial to the way he liked to work, which was from written notes and sketches in his diary. He would then begin to paint from memory, across a number of wall-pinned canvases simultaneously. Bonnard said he could never paint a ‘new’ ‘treasure’, an incumbent gilded bowl or a plate, until he really ‘got to know it’, and could thence ‘forget it’ and paint it entirely from memory.

Let’s look, for example, at White interior, 1932 (Musée de Grenoble, Grenoble ). This painting depicts the upstairs sitting-dining room at Le Bosquet. This is a room that featured a pretty fireplace, slightly smaller than the one in the main downstairs dining room. In the painting, the actual dimensions of the room seem stretched to almost span it from left to right, incorporating the back cupboards as tall rectilinear planes of varying shades of white, reminding us of overlapping ‘flats’ on either side of a stage.

Pierre Bonnard<br/>
<em>White interior (Le Cannet)</em> (<em>Int&eacute;rieur blanc (Le Cannet)</em>) 1932<br/>
oil on canvas<br/>
109.5 &times; 155.8 cm<br/>
Mus&eacute;e de Grenoble <br/>
Acquired, 1933 (MG 2682)<br/>
Photo: Ville de Grenoble / Mus&eacute;e de Grenoble &ndash; J. L. Lacroix

The spatial field in White interior is ‘much wider than the human eye could normally see’.4 It’s also a richer and denser visual array than we might ever have absorbed with a glance, which reminds us of Bonnard’s desire to represent familiar rooms as if seen ‘all of a sudden’. On the table we may recognise some of the ‘tabletop treasures’. You might need to step right up close to surface of a painting, and then step a few paces back and squint, and then repeat, much as Bonnard himself did, as a kind of to and fro ‘dance’, similar to his own bodily gestures while making the paintings.

Bonnard’s array of quotidian table top objects, even when blurred, generally functioned as recognisable actors in a recurrent scenario of shared meals. Their primary role was to counterbalance ‘the power of the centre [of the picture]’ 5 as well as to tone down the emotional intensity of our viewers’ relationship with figures in the composition, by making the humans somehow subsidiary to the visual complexities of the tabletop.

‘Treasures’ here include the white coffee set, the white tablecloth, a brownish orange glazed teapot, an orange jam jar, a tall-sided glass fruit bowl, a little bowl of colourful modern ‘faience’, and a green jug with wildflowers.

Pushing up into the lower left-hand third of the composition, we see the back of a folksy russet-hued dining chair, and what is possibly a tray hanging over the edge of the white-clothed table. Almost impaled on this perspectival tip, we see Marthe, in the act of reaching down to pet or feed a small black and white cat.

Since Bonnard never painted directly from the motif, he is not, of course, seeing these objects ‘all of sudden’, but as they have been absorbed and remembered. Accordingly, the ‘meal’ itself, looks hazy and speculative and the foods we might expect – bread rolls, salads, meat –the five food groups – rarely, if ever, appear together. The visual array itself provides food for the eye and mind. Thus within this ordinary and commonplace meal, Bonnard succeeds with great mastery in teasing our perceptions across the tabletop, as if it were a kind of space-time continuum.

Pierre Bonnard<br/>
<em>Dining room overlooking the garden (The breakfast room)</em> (<em>Salle a manger sur le jardin</em>) 1930&ndash;31<br/>
oil on canvas<br/>
159.6 &times; 113.8 cm<br/>
The Museum of Modern Art, New York <br/>
Given anonymously, 1941 (392.1941)<br/>
&copy; 2023. Digital Image, The Museum of Modern Art, New York / Scala, Florence

Dr Georgina Downey is a Visiting Research Fellow in Art History at The University of Adelaide.

This essay was commissioned for and appeared in NGV Magazine, Issue 40 May–Jun 2023.



Diary note for Feb. 1, 1934 in Bonnard, exh. cat., Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1984, p. 69.


Freud, (1917) ‘Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis’, in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 16, trans. James Strachey, 1974, London: The Hogarth Press, London, p. 336–7.


Walter Benjamin, The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire,Harvard University Press, 2006, p. 38.


Amory, Dita, ed. Pierre Bonnard: The Late Still Lifes and Interiors, Met Publications, 2009


Amory, Dita, ed. Pierre Bonnard: The Late Still Lifes and Interiors, Met Publications, 2009