Oil paint on canvas, 730 x 1064 mm, Tate

Bonnard’s colour stays in the mind’s eye long after leaving Tate’s current exhibition. His dappled brushwork, undulating lines and areas of colour describe landscapes, interiors and still lifes. They are images of languid, unhurried, sunny days. The artist plays with colours in complementary ways, reds set off greens, blues ignite oranges, and mauves fire yellows. Not always set next to each other, they make the eye do its work. Bonnard’s colours are not the bright, straight from the tube, pigment colours of the Fauves; their viridians, vermilions, chrome yellows. Bonnard’s are mixed hues: crushed raspberry pinks, leafy greens and sunny yellows.  Toned and placed in an equilibrium that recalls Mondrian, not his geometry but the light as a feather balance he achieves in his compositions. No part is too strong, too vibrant or heavy.

In truth, given the decades over which the dog appears in paintings, photos and a video, the dog was a series of small hounds. Most of them called Poucette but one called Ubu, a reference to Alfred Jarry, with whom he had worked illustrating an Almanac du Père Ubu published by Ambrose Vollard in 1901. This all sheds another light on Bonnard’s thinking. But was calling the dog Ubu not also an allusion to the certain degree of mayhem miniature dachshunds bring with them?

André Ostier (1906–1994): Pierre Bonnard, 1941
© André Ostier

That balancing act is achieved in other ways central to an artist’s compositional thinking that we as viewers can often overlook, taking it for granted. It is a balance of tension and ease, created by line and viewpoint.  He uses one small subject with great skill: his dog. It is a small, smooth-haired, red dachshund. The dog’s red is not strident, less red than a fox. It is an earthy colour. To paint it must have involved Indian red and yellow ochre earths, perhaps a tinge of greenish raw umber, counterpointed here and there with an outline of Prussian blue appearing as a nose above a table top being given a prize tidbit.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947)
The Dining Room, Vernon c. 1925Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen
Photo © Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

Bonnard has captured the dog’s slightly guilty poise as it gets its front paws on the table, its tension as it eyes the food being consumed on the table above ever alert for the fall of a lucky crumb or his master leaving the room. Then there is the ‘this is my place’ hold of the head as he sits enthroned, entitled, on his master’s lap. In the paintings all this is achieved understatedly. Bonnard contrasts it with the pose of humans as they slowly drink their coffee, they amble into the garden, leaving the cat sleeping unconcerned on a chair.

Pierre Bonnard (1867 – 1947)
Window Open on the Seine (Vernon) (Fenêtre ouverte sur la Seine (Vernon))
Oil paint on canvas
780 x 1055 mm
(c) Ville de Nice Musée des Beaux-Arts Jules Chéret

Colour, line and form all are used, resulting in paintings that show no hint of the struggle or years it took Bonnard to paint them, a balancing act indeed done with great sleight of hand.