By Lina Broydo
Photos courtesy of the Legion of Honor Museum
February has long been a month of romance. No matter what, one thing is always certain: being in love is the most wonderful and amazing feeling on this earth. From historic figures like Casanova, whose name is synonymous with romance, to India’s Shah Jahan, who built one of the worlds most remarkable buildings to honor his wife, to modern love affairs like that of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, history’s lovers have long had a place in the popular imagination.
My recent visit to the opening of the Legion of Honor Museum’s magnificent exhibit by French artist Pierre Bonnard, served as my muse of the romantics and it set the stage for my Valentine’s Day celebration. Pierre Bonnard amorous journey of over 70 alluring and brightly colored paintings, drawings and photographs are currently featured in this exhibit and depict and transcend his love of life, nature and mostly his love affair with Madame Marthe Boursin whom he met in Paris in 1893 when she worked in a flower shop. Bonnard was so much in love with Marthe that during their nearly 50 years together he painted 384 paintings and thousands of drawings of her. As Bonnard put it: “Our generation always sought to link art with life.”
To most Valentine’s Day celebration is a one day festivity lavished with roses, sparkling Champagne, chocolates, kisses and a candlelight dinner in salute to the romance in their life. But to some the Cupid’s inspiration lasts their entire life, each and every day, as is in the case of Bonnard, and it is expressed on canvases of this famous French painter, known for his transitional period between Impressionism and the emerging modernism.
Pierre Bonnard: Painting Arcadia is the first major international presentation of the artist’s work on the West Coast in half a century. How utterly appropriate that the city’s iconic Legion of Honor Museum, whose design was inspired by the French pavilion as a replica of the Palais de la Legion d’Honneur in Paris, France, will host and showcase this spectacular exhibit.
As a young artist Bonnard developed the Arcadian vision of the world. “Bonnard’s arcadia, the unattainable place, a garden of Eden, is filled with poetry, wit, color and warmth,” said Esther Bell, curator in charge of European paintings. “This selection of highlights from his career will make clear the artist’s important role in the history of French modernism.”
According to the museum’s press release, Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947) was born just outside of Paris. He was the son of a high-ranking bureaucrat in the French War Ministry. In 1887 he enrolled in classes at the Académie Julian in Paris, where he became a student and follower of Paul Gauguin. Gauguin’s teaching inspired a group of young painters known as Les Nabis (after the Hebrew words navi or nabi, meaning prophet), with whom Bonnard joined.
From the domestic and urban scenes of his early Nabi period to the great elegies of the 20th century, Bonnard’s output is grounded in a modernity that was transformed by his knowledge of works from other cultures, including Japanese woodblock prints and Mediterranean mosaics.
My infatuation with Bonnard’s paintings was enhanced by a sheer coincidence when I met Pierrette Vernon at a small café in the picturesque town of Carmel, Monterey Bay. Ms. Vernon, is a Paris art dealer, whose grandmother was Marthe Boursin’s sister. Sharing a small table due to the café’s lack of space resulted in a lively conversation and developed into a warm friendship, followed by an invitation to visit Ms. Vernon in Paris and eventually in St. Tropez, France. Little did I know that I will be staying in her stunning Parisian apartment and the gorgeous villa in St. Tropez, both belonging to the French painter Pierre Bonnard, the grand uncle of Ms. Vernon.
Surrounded by the artist’s original paintings mounted on the walls of the apartment on Rue Washington in a close proximity to Champs-Elysees, as well as on the walls of the villa with the only salt water pumped out of the Mediterranean Sea swimming pool, (I guess Bonnard was an early environmentalist) and realizing that some of the views from the villa’s windows in St. Tropez were depicted in his paintings, I was absolutely awestruck and sleepless due to the excitement of this realization. This could only happen in the well written script for a movie, but it was for real and I loved every second of it.
Bonnard was already a recognized artist in France before the end of the 19th century, having won a competition in which Henri de Toulouse-Latrec came second. His winning entry was a poster of a champagne bottle. Perfect for the Valentine’s Day celebration. Yes, love was definitely in the air for Pierre Bonnard and his beloved Marthe. Asked why Bonnard always painted Marthe as young woman and never aging even when she was old, Pierrette Vernon said: “He considered her ageless – she represented a woman to him.”
Cheers and Happy Valentine’s Day, whichever way you plan to celebrate.
The Pierre Bonnard: Painting Arcadia exhibition is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, and the Fundación MAPFRE, Madrid. This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. For adults, tickets start at $20 and include general admission; discounts are available for seniors, students, and youths. Members and children 5 and under are free. Prices subject to change, more information is available at legionofhonor.org/bonnard.