What was Pierre Bonnard’s life like? He spent his early youth at Fontenay-aux-Roses near Paris. His father was a department head at the War Ministry, and the family hoped that Pierre would follow in his father’s footsteps. His first impulse, born of his background, led him to the Law School, but it very soon began to wane. He started visiting the Académie Julian and later the Ecole des Beaux-Arts more often than the Law School. The cherished dream of every student of the Ecole was the Prix de Rome.
Bonnard studied at the Ecole for about a year and left it when he failed to win the coveted prize. His Triumph of Mordecai, a picture on a set subject which he submitted for the competition, was not considered to be serious enough. Bonnard’s career as an artist began in the summer of 1888 with small landscapes painted in a manner which had little in common with the precepts of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. They were executed at Grand- Lemps in the Dauphiné. Bonnard’s friends — Sérusier, Denis, Roussel and Vuillard — thought highly of these works.
Made in the environs of Grand-Lemps, the studies were simple and fresh in colour and betrayed a poetic view of nature reminiscent of Corot’s.
Dissatisfied with the teaching at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and at the Académie Julian, Bonnard and Vuillard continued their education independently. They zealously visited museums. During the first ten years of their friendship, hardly a day went when they did not see each other. And yet they addressed one another with the formal “vous”, while Bonnard addressed other members of the Nabi group with “tu”.
In the 1890s Bonnard was by no means a recluse. He loved to go for long walks with Roussel, even listened with pleasure to Denis’s lengthy tirades, although he remained rather taciturn himself. He was sociable in the best sense of the word. One of his humorous reminiscent drawings (1910) shows the Place Clichy, the centre of the quarter where young artists, light-hearted and somewhat bohemian, usually congregated. Bonnard, Vuillard and Roussel are unhurriedly crossing the square.
Some distance away, Denis is bustling along with a folder under his arm. Towards them, from the opposite direction, comes Toulouse-Lautrec, swinging a thick walkingstick. Toulouse-Lautrec was well disposed towards Bonnard and Vuillard. From time to time he would take their paintings, hire a carriage and drive to the art-dealers whom he knew personally. It was not easy to get them interested, though.
Toulouse-Lautrec greatly admired Bonnard’s poster France-Champagne published in 1891. Bonnard took the artist to his printer, Ancours, in whose shop Toulouse-Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge was printed later the same year followed by his other famous posters. The poster France- Champagne, commissioned by the wine-dealer Debray in 1889, was to play a special role in Bonnard’s life. This work brought him his first emoluments.
The sum was miserably small compared with the earnings of the then much-feted artist Jean Meissonnier, but it convinced Bonnard that painting could provide him with a living. This small success coincided with failure in his university examinations. Perhaps he was deliberately burning his boats, abandoning a career in business for the sake of art. On 9 March 1891 he wrote to his mother: “I won’t be able to see my poster on the walls just yet. It will only appear at the end of the month. But as I finger the hundred francs in my pocket, I must admit I feel proud.”
At about the same time he sent five pictures to the Salon des Indépendants. At the close of 1891 he exhibited his works together with Toulouse-Lautrec, Bernard, Anquetin and Denis at Le Barc de Boutteville’s. When a journalist from Echo de Paris, who interviewed the artists at the exhibition, asked Bonnard to name his favourite painters, he declined to do so. He said that he did not belong to any school. His idea was to bring off something of his own and he was trying to forget all that he had been taught at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
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