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
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
Self portrait in dressing room mirror
Portrait du peintre par lui-même
circa 1938-circa 1940
oil on canvas
76.2 x 61.0 cm stretcher; 104.5 x 88.3 x 10.5 cm frame
Signature & date
Signed u.r., brown oil "Bonnard". Not dated.
© Pierre Bonnard/ADAGP. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney
Shown in 12 exhibitions
Accessions and proposals, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, United States of America, 30 Apr 1964–24 May 1964
Bonnard and his environment:
- The Museum of Modern Art, United States of America 07 Oct 1964–29 Nov 1964
- The Art Institute of Chicago, United States of America 08 Jan 1965–28 Feb 1965
- Los Angeles County Museum of Art, United States of America 31 Mar 1965–30 May 1965
- Royal Academy of Arts, London 06 Jan 1966–06 Mar 1966
- National Gallery of Victoria [St Kilda Road], Melbourne May 1971–mid Jun 1971
- Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide 24 Jun 1971–25 Jul 1971
- Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth 06 Aug 1971–12 Sep 1971
- Australian Museum, Sydney 15 Oct 1971–10 Nov 1971
- Kunsthaus Zürich, Switzerland 14 Dec 1984–10 Mar 1985
- Städtische Galerie im Städelschen Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt am Main 03 May 1985–14 Jul 1985
- Tate Britain, England 12 Feb 1998–17 May 1998
- The Museum of Modern Art, United States of America 17 Jun 1998–13 Oct 1998
The last gaze. Late self-portraits (from Bonnard to Bacon), Museu D'Art Contemporani, Barcelona, Barcelona, 16 Oct 1997–06 Jan 1998
Pierre Bonnard: early and late:
Pierre Bonnard: observing nature, Queensland Art Gallery, South Brisbane, 04 Jul 2003–28 Sep 2003
Self portrait: Renaissance to contemporary:
Bonnard, Matisse and the Mediterranean, Complesso Monumentale del Vittoriano, Rome, 06 Oct 2006–04 Feb 2007
Pierre Bonnard: the late interiors, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 26 Jan 2009–19 Apr 2009
From Van Gogh to FaceTime. Self Portraits in the 20th and 21st Centuries, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark, 14 Sep 2012–13 Jan 2013
Modernists: Selections from the European Collection, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 07 Nov 2015–25 Apr 2016
Andrée Bonnard-Terrasse, France, Bonnard's sister
Wildenstein & Co., New York/New York/United States of America, Purchased by the AGNSW from Wildenstein & Co. 1972
Referenced in 35 publications
Renée Free. European Collection 1., Art Gallery of New South Wales collection series, 'Pierre Bonnard: Self-portrait in the dressing-room mirror', Sydney, 1981, 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, 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, Carlton, 2014, 62 (colour illus.), 63-65, 252.
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. cat.no.74
Renée Free, Art Gallery of New South Wales handbook, 'European', pg. 36-56, Sydney, 1988, 51 (colour illus.).
Renee Free, Art Gallery of New South Wales Annual, 'Pierre Bonnard: Self-portrait at 73', p6-9, Sydney, 1974-1975, 7 (illus.). fig.no. 1
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, Ainslie, 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.).
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.).
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.). cat.no.10
Ross Steele, Art and Australia, 'French Impressions', pg. 87-93, Sydney, Spring 1984, 92 (colour illus.), 93.
Charles Terrasse, Apollo, 'Recollections of Bonnard', London, Jan 1966, 63 (illus.).
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
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. cat.no. 45
Jörg Zutter, Pierre Bonnard: observing nature, 'Pierre Bonnard: Observing Nature', pg.37-73, Canberra, 2003, 67 (colour illus.), 68. fig.66, cat.55
Pierre Bonnard, Zurich, 1984, 276, 277 (colour illus.). cat.no. 145
Unknown and Unknown (Editors), Portrait of a Gallery, 'European 20th Century Art', pg. 91-95, Sydney, 1984, 93 (colour illus.).
AGNSW Collections, The Western Heritage, Renaissance to 20th Century, Sydney, 1994, 163 (colour illus.).
Bonnard, London, 1998, 208, 209 (colour illus.), 269. cat.no. 78
Art Gallery of New South Wales Collection Series: European 1: Pierre Bonnard, Self-portrait in dressing-room mirror, Sydney, 1981, cover, (colour illus.).
Matisse e Bonnard, Viva la pittura!, Rome, 2006, 476, 477 (colour illus.). cat.no.218
Australia's national collections, North Ryde, 1980, 256 (illus.).
Bonnard and his environment, New York, 1964, 98 (colour illus.). cat.no. 74
Art Gallery of New South Wales picturebook, Sydney, 1972, cover (colour illus.).
Pierre Bonnard, London, 1971, cover (colour illus.). cat.no. 36
Pierre Bonnard, London, 1966. cat.no. 246
Bonnard, London, 1966, 137 (colour illus.). Originally published in french as Bonnard; ou, Le bonheur de voir. Neuchatel, Ides et Calendes, 1965.
Bonnard catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre peint, '1940-1947', Paris, 1966-1974, Vol. 4, 37 (illus.). cat.no. 1599, 'Portrait du peintre par lui-même'
Bonnard at Le Cannet, 'The Self Portraits', pg. 115-119, London, 1988, 116 (illus.). as Autoportrait, Private Collection USA
Le Figaro magazine, Paris, 14 Jan 2006, (colour illus.).
Bonnard, Paris, 1988, (colour illus.). cat.no. 295
A face to the world: on self-portraits, 'Mirrors', London, 2009, 149 (colour illus.).