One of the most wonderful things about Bonnard is his lack of affectation. He freely admitted to pursuing art, not because of some great drive to create and discover, but because he thought more conventional pursuits were boring. His greatest fear was enduring a life of mediocrity and routine. Luckily for him, he had a talent for painting. That gift, combined with a felicitous knack for deep and enduring friendships, served him throughout his life.
Bonnard, one of the original Nabis and generally thought of as an impressionist or post-impressionist, tended to be less intellectual about his work than others. He considered himself a kind of romantic realist, and while not fully in any particular school, it is true that there is a quality of romance to most of his work, particularly his paintings of Marthe, his beloved wife. Where more scholarly painters like Cezanne approached light and subject with scientific precision, Bonnard had an almost Eastern approach, addressing the impact of form on form, the relationship of a living creature to a mirror, a dresser, a window, a lamp.
His content seems more emotional than many. His aversion to boredom is apparent in the varieties of style he pursued over a long career. He was not afraid to experiment, yet over time, we begin to see that always there is this blending of subject with surrounding, an unspoken belief that the one arises from the other, that the human heart defines the context that creates it.
He was a much admired and beloved man in his life. His friendships with Vuillard and Lautrec lasted all their adult lives, and Lautrec considered him a mentor. His favorite model was the wife he adored, and he painted her (and her dogs) over and over again. She died in 1942 some fifty years after she and Bonnard had met. It was a turbulent and terrible time in Europe, and now the old artist had to ride out the war alone. Perhaps it was better that she be spared the worst of the war years, but I am of those who think it is never better to be away from those you love, and I suspect Bonnard felt much the same. We shall never know. We only know that when she died, he closed the door to the room in which they’d slept and did not open it again the rest of his life.