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Western art

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Self portrait

circa 1938-circa 1940


Pierre Bonnard


03 Oct 1867 - 23 Jan 1947


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


Other Title

Self portrait in dressing room mirror

Alternative title

Portrait du peintre par lui-même


circa 1938-circa 1940

Media category


Materials used

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


Not on display

Accession number


Artist information

Pierre Bonnard

Works in the collection


Shown in 14 exhibitions

Exhibition history


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.

Referenced in 35 publications


Art Gallery of New South Wales, Art Gallery of New South Wales picturebook, Sydney, 1972, cover (colour illus.).

Tony Bond and Wayne Tunnicliffe, Contemporary: Art Gallery of New South Wales Contemporary Collection, 'Collecting contemporary art at AGNSW', pg.424-441, Sydney, 2006, 425.

Edmund Capon AM, OBE and Jan Meek (Editors), Portrait of a Gallery, 'European 20th Century Art', pg. 91-95, Sydney, 1984, 93 (colour illus.).

Edmund Capon, Look, 'And then there were two', pg.24-25, Melbourne, Jul 2001, 24 (colour illus.).

Betty Churcher, Australian notebooks, 'ART GALLERY OF NEW SOUTH WALES', pg. 45-90, Melbourne, 2014, 62 (colour illus.), 63-65, 252.

Complesso Monumentale del Vittoriano, Matisse e Bonnard, Viva la pittura!, Rome, 2006, 476, 477 (colour illus.).

Laura Cumming, A face to the world: on self-portraits, 'Mirrors', London, 2009, 149 (colour illus.).

Jean Dauberville and Henry Dauberville, Bonnard catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre peint, '1940-1947', Paris, 1966-1974, Vol. 4, 37 (illus.). 1599, 'Portrait du peintre par lui-même'

James Elliott and Monroe Wheeler (Curators), Bonnard and his environment, New York, 1964, 98 (colour illus.). 74

Jack Flam, Pierre Bonnard: the late still lifes and interiors, 'Bonnard in the history of twentieth-century art', pg.47-59, New Haven, 2009, 47, 167 (colour illus.), 169.

Foundation Wildenstein, Pierre Bonnard, London, 1971, cover (colour illus.). 36

Renee Free, Art Gallery of New South Wales Annual, 'Pierre Bonnard: Self-portrait at 73', p6-9, Sydney, 1974-1975, 7 (illus.). 1

Renée Free, Art Gallery of New South Wales handbook, 'European', pg. 36-56, Sydney, 1988, 51 (colour illus.).

Renée Free, Art Gallery of New South Wales Collection Series: European 1: Pierre Bonnard, Self-portrait in dressing-room mirror, Sydney, 1981, cover, (colour illus.).

Renee Free, Art and Australia, 'European Collection', p.63-75, Sydney, Jul 1972, 74 (illus.).

Sasha Grishin, The Canberra times, 'Reflecting the artist's self', pg.8-9, Canberra, 26 Feb 2006, Relax: 8 (colour illus.). Sunday supplement

Bruce James, Art Gallery of New South Wales handbook, 'Western Collection: Paintings and Sculpture', pg. 17-77, Sydney, 1999, 61 (colour illus.).

Kunsthaus Zürich, Pierre Bonnard, Zurich, 1984, 276, 277 (colour illus.). 145

Peter Laverty, Art and Australia (Vol. 20, No. 2), 'Artist's Choice No.12 Pierre Bonnard: Self-portrait', pg. 246-247, Sydney, Summer 1982, 246, 247 (colour illus.).

Clem Lloyd and Peter Sekuless, Australia's national collections, Sydney, 1980, 256 (illus.).

Ewen McDonald, AGNSW Collections, The Western Heritage, Renaissance to 20th Century, Sydney, 1994, 163 (colour illus.).

Justin Paton, Look, 'Against the light', pg.52-8, Sydney, May 2018-Jun 2018, 52, 53 (colour illus.), 55, 57-8.

Liz Rideal, Self-portrait, 'Golden years? 1905-1950: a non digital world. Self-expression, self-promotion, self-preservation', pg.21-25, Humlebæk, 2012, 24, 63 (colour illus.).

Ross Steele, Art and Australia, 'French Impressions', pg. 87-93, Sydney, Spring 1984, 92 (colour illus.), 93.

Denys Sutton, Pierre Bonnard, London, 1966. 246

Antoine Terrasse, Bonnard, Paris, 1988, (colour illus.). 295

Charles Terrasse, Apollo, 'Recollections of Bonnard', London, Jan 1966, 63 (illus.).

Michel Terrasse, Bonnard at Le Cannet, 'The Self Portraits', pg. 115-119, London, 1988, 116 (illus.). as Autoportrait, Private Collection USA

Angus Trumble, The Burlington Magazine, 'Bonnard', pg. 749-750, London, Oct 2003, 749, 750 (colour illus.). exhibition review

Elizabeth Hutton Turner, Pierre Bonnard: early and late, 'The imaginary cinema of Pierre Bonnard', pg.52-73, London, 2002, 72 (colour illus.), 234 (colour illus.). fig. 87, plate 135

Annette Vaillant, Bonnard, London, 1966, 137 (colour illus.). Originally published in french as Bonnard; ou, Le bonheur de voir. Neuchatel, Ides et Calendes, 1965.

Sarah Whitfield, Bonnard, London, 1998, 208, 209 (colour illus.), 269. 78

Joanna Woodall, Self portrait: Renaissance to contemporary, '"Every painter paints himself": self-portraiture and creativity', pg.18-29, London, 2005, 27, 37, 174 (colour illus.), 175, 200. 45

Jörg Zutter, Pierre Bonnard: observing nature, 'Pierre Bonnard: Observing Nature', pg.37-73, Canberra, 2003, 67 (colour illus.), 68. fig.66, cat.55

Editor Unknown, Le Figaro magazine, Paris, 14 Jan 2006, (colour illus.).