Pierre Bonnard was born October 3, 1867, in Fontenay-aux-Roses, France. He began law studies in Paris in 1887. That same year, Bonnard also attended the Académie Julian and in 1888 he entered the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he met Edouard Vuillard, who became his lifelong friend. Thus Bonnard gave up law to become an artist, and, after brief military service, in 1889 he joined the group of young painters called the Nabis, who were organized by Paul Sérusier and included Maurice Denis, Paul Ranson, Roussel, Vuillard, and others. The Nabis, influenced by Paul Gauguin and the fashionable Japanese woodblock prints, experimented with arbitrary color, expressive line, and flat, patterned surfaces.
In 1890, Pierre Bonnard shared a studio with Vuillard and Denis, and he began to make color lithographs. The following year, he met Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Also in 1891, he showed for the first time at the Salon des Indépendants and in the Nabis’s earliest exhibitions at Le Barc de Boutteville. Bonnard exhibited with the Nabis until they disbanded in 1900. He worked in a variety of mediums; for example, he frequently made posters and illustrations for La Revue Blanche.
In 1895 he designed a stained-glass window for Louis Comfort Tiffany. His first solo show, at Galerie Durand-Ruel in 1896, included paintings, posters, and lithographs. In 1897, Ambroise Vollard published the first of many albums of Bonnard’s lithographs and illustrated books.
In 1903, Bonnard participated in the first Salon d’Automne and in the Vienna Secession, and from 1906 he was represented by Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Paris. He traveled abroad extensively and worked at various locations in Normandy, the Seine Valley, the south of France, as well as Paris. He bought a villa in Le Cannet near Cannes in 1925.
Pierre Bonnard did not paint from life but rather drew his subject—sometimes photographing it as well—and made notes on the colors. He then painted the canvas in his studio from his notes. Bonnard is known for his intense use of color. His often complex compositions—typically of sunlit interiors of rooms and gardens populated with friends and family members—are both narrative and autobiographical. His wife Marthe was an ever present subject over the course of several decades. She is seen seated at the kitchen table, with the remnants of a meal; or nude, as in a series of paintings where she reclines in the bathtub. He also painted several self-portraits, landscapes, and many still lifes which usually depict flowers and fruit.
The Art Institute of Chicago mounted a major exhibition of the work of Pierre Bonnard and Vuillard in 1933. He finished his last painting, The Almond Tree in Flower, a week before his death in Le Cannet in 1947. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City organized a posthumous retrospective of Bonnard’s work in 1948, although originally it was meant to be a celebration of the artist’s eightieth birthday. Two major exhibitions of Bonnard’s work took place in 1998: February through May at the Tate Gallery in London, and from June through October at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.