During the late 1880s and 1890s, French painter and printmaker Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) was a member of the progressive artists’ group called the Nabis, from the Hebrew word for prophet. Like his good friend Edouard Vuillard, he was known for his paintings of intimate interior scenes. In the 20th century, Bonnard’s brushwork loosened, and he favored expansive landscapes and compositions with unusual perspectives. Bonnard began taking photographs in 1897, using a Pocket Kodak. He and Vuillard were intrigued that the snapshot (called l’instantanée in France) could capture a fleeting moment—an effect they sought in their paintings. Around 1907 the artist changed to a Folding Pocket Kodak because it was easier to carry, thanks to its retractable lens. Bonnard primarily photographed his family and friends, including his companion, Marthe, in the countryside. The artist used his photographs as notations rather than literal sources for his paintings, though he did transfer a few snapshots quite specifically into illustrations for printed books. By 1920 Bonnard had abandoned his interest in photography. More than 200 of his photographs have survived.
Marthe in the bathtub, Vernouillet, 1908-1910, Sepia-toned gelatin silver print from original negative, and Crouching Nude in a Tub, 1925, pencil and gray wash. © 2012 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris.
Bonnard’s photographic work consists of several hundred snapshots taken over a span of two decades, beginning in 1897. He immediately recognized the camera’s potential to record scenes quickly and to capture subjects informally. Around 1907, however, Bonnard opted for monumentalized figures shot from exaggerated perspectives with his Folding Pocket Kodak – a model that yielded larger negatives. A photograph of Bonnard’s wife Marthe, taken in Vernouillet, dates to this period of stylistic experimentation. Sources for this composition include the nude bathers of Edgar Degas (1834-1917), as well as classical statuary. A 1925 pencil sketch of a crouching nude demonstrates Bonnard’s continued interest in such motifs.