h2_68.1The Terrace at Vernonnet, 1920-39, Oil on canvas, 58 1/4 x 76 3/4 inches
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Pierre Bonnard’s painting The Terrace at Vernonnet in The Met appears to be a scene of domestic tranquility and pleasure but if one looks more closely it might give pause. The picture brings us to a summery get together on a golden terrace above a shimmering blue/violet/green/pale yellow landscape. The canvas itself is about the size of a commodious dining table that Bonnard has set up for us, his unseen guests. When I accept the invitation its formal beauty extends, and move closer to this seemingly warm, sensuous work, it’s clear that something much colder is being suggested. While a narrative seems to be implied, it’s hard to determine what the story is. The work’s chromatic structure, gestural facture, loosely interlocking shapes and overall composition feel joyous and lyrical. His treatment of the figures, however, puts quite a few flies in its sweet ointment. Of the six figures on this colorful painted terrace only two are not seen as isolate. The story Bonnard’s characters tell is certainly not a happy one, no joy here. It is a curious work of art, and different from most of the other paintings in the galleries that surround it.

I am drawn to writing about The Terrace at Vernonnet because of its formal and narrative complexity. While it’s not my favorite Bonnard, it is one of his achingly real portrayals of home and hearth. It is also a picture with a narrative that defies an easy read; its formal and iconographic qualities seem to oppose one another. Bonnard’s terrace is a place that is at once both pleasant and unsettling.

Paintings like The Terrace at Vernonnet resist a singular interpretation. In contrast, a very different picture of a terrace hangs not far from Bonnard’s. Monet’s Gardens at St. Adresse (1867) in room 818 reveals a sunny, breezy day on a terrace by the sea. Here too are figures in the painting’s foreground, but this group seems to be on the terrace only to partake of its time and place. All Monet’s iconic and painterly elements demonstrate that the afternoon on this terrace is just as we see it, lots of light, sun and fresh air. People are present but a freighted psychology is not. It is a wonderful work but my heart lies with work that offers a more complicated visual and narrative experience.

h2_67.241Claude Monet, Garden at Sainte–Adresse, 1867, Oil on canvas; 38 5/8 x 51 1/8 inches

In the visual sense alone this Bonnard is illusive. His sleight of hand is that of the consummate formalist. ‘People always speak of submission to nature. There is also submission to the picture’, he said[1]. If one looks carefully, the painting’s elements are cleverly organized, as in a Piero. Oranges, blues, violets, rusts, greens, and yellows are in high key. Pure color abuts, overlays or is feathered into color, with few grays or browns. We can see that the canvas is basically split into two zones, one mostly orangey and warm and the other where many kinds of cool colors dominate. (With all that chromatic contrast a black and white copy of The Terrace at Vernonnet will cause many of its elements to disappear.) Scrubby and semitransparent, the canvas’ facture is underlaid with faint pencil lines, which seem to wiggle up through the paint. One can clearly see the painter’s unique way with his tools; dabbing, scrubbing, coaxing the paint over the canvas surface. It looks fresh but we know that it was labored over for many years.

bandwThe Terrace at Vernonnet (Black and White Image)

Bonnard began The Terrace at Vernonnet in 1920 at his home/studio near the Seine[2] about forty miles northwest of Paris. In 1926 he and Marthe Méligne, his model and future wife moved to Le Cannet on the Cote d’Azur. It was there in 1939, thirteen years after he had relocated south that he completed the painting. His northern years saw an affair with Renée Monchaty, a young artist/model, begin around 1918 and end with her suicide in 1925. Monchaty was a subject for several of Bonnard’s works, (most of which were destroyed at Marthe’s insistence). I believe that this affair might have something to do with the strangeness of The Terrace at Venonnet’s. This biographical information tells us that while the artist certainly drew from observation, the facture of memory served as one of his most important sources. The painting lets us know that Bonnard was not illustrating events from his life; it has sources that can be traced but they only lead us back to the work’s mystery.

Domesticity is often said to be Bonnard’s subject. His work has often been derided as not being tough enough to be great (it’s easy to see the sexism behind this categorization). I remember critics like Clement Greenberg[3] and Peter Schjeldahl[4] using words like “limp” (Greenberg) or “fussy” (Schjeldahl). For me he is like a late Titian (think The Flaying of Marsyas), one of the very toughest artists, hard to copy or follow. The ambivalent condition of the domestic sphere is what I see as his work’s subject, like Proust to whom he is often compared, or Murasaki. It seems silly to categorize motifs of home and family as superficial, what would Euripides, Shakespeare, Woolf or Morrison have to say about that? Bonnard’s radiant, lyrical, light saturated composition has all the glamour, tragedy and ordinariness of life as lived. Why would a Picasso admire a Bonnard, who paints a world without heroes?[5] Bonnard’s edenic scenes seem in perpetual, undramatic states of rising and falling, at once lucid and obscure. Like Picasso, his muses were often women. Bonnard’s muses, however, inspired very different protagonists, ones usually submerged in and obscured by the places in which we find them.

Who hasn’t experienced an “at home” like The Terrace at Vernonnet? Perhaps on a sunny summery day we are invited to an intimate get together on the warm veranda of a golden house surrounded by woods, rivers and fields. But after we arrive and look around we may start to wonder. Are these people as inviting and lovely as this place? OR is it also possible that we are entering into a Long Day’s Journey Into Night kind of afternoon? Are my hosts really enjoying this luminous day? It’s hard to say, since it’s not so easy to approach this group. All of them are standing behind both table and tree. The view from our side of the big mauve tree is somewhat voyeuristic. And let’s see, of the six figures on this terrace only an indistinct couple towards the left are engaged with one another. What’s up with the other four? The tiny man in green/blue (Bonnard?) is standing on the far end of the porch, he faces outward (at us?) and there is no sign that he is interested in anyone within this ménage. A woman, the largest most central figure (our hostess?) stands in the shade behind a light dappled table. The tree’s violet trunk bisects the whole of this scene from top to bottom and separates her (as well as the other female figures) from the tiny man and the couple. She and her dress are reddish and orange like most of the house and deck, but darker. Set off by the deep blueish shrubbery behind her, her torso almost seems to be set upon the orange dish before her. Her lower body can’t be seen at all; at this party we can’t see anybody in full figure.

Right in front of us at the canvas’ center is a round table, its blocky shape measures about half the width of the whole picture. The table is empty except for a platter of fruit (peaches and green figs or grapes), a small blue dish (that anchors the composition’s lateral center), a dark green bottle and a few blue grapes. Where are the glasses? Plates? No drinks for us I guess! Perhaps we have missed the cocktail hour? Alone, the woman at the table faces forward but like the mysteriously tiny figure in the background, she is focused neither on us nor anyone else here. She seems to be in her own world. And what is she holding in her hand? It could be a piece of fruit but it also might be a ball, which would perhaps explain the tennis racket I think I see in the upraised hand of the figure furthest to her right. Or is it a hatchet? That figure, also in a golden orange light is said (on the wall label) to refer to The Dying Niobid [6]. (In other works of his, like The Red Flowers of 1927[7], that same reference is apparent.) I’ve also read that this pose is transcribed from The Louvre’s Roman statue of a soldier slaughtering a Gaul[8]. In any case, death may be lurking about our golden girl. To the right of our hostess and turned toward her, is a smaller woman dressed in dark blue holding a basket of purple plums at arms length. She bends over the basket (which one might notice could nicely contain our hostess’ head). Almost fading into mottled blue/green foliage, she is not going to look at us or at her fellow guests. Maybe she is just passing through, exiting stage left? or will she offer her fruit to the woman at the table? It’s not clear what she offers but if we want anything to eat she might be our only hope.

Most puzzling of all is our racket-wielding figure. She is positioned behind a bench that angles in from the lower left corner and in front of a wall that almost reaches the top of the painting. Perhaps a youngish woman, and looking very much like Bonnard’s portraits of Renée, she too is dressed in orange.[9] Her amber coloration is so like the hue of the wall that she could be seen as transparent. Torso poised at an angle, she seems to be moving towards the left; an upraised arm seems ready to strike out with whatever it is she holds. But who or what is within her reach? If she is aiming her tennis racket where could the ball be? Let’s just stay out of her way! Whether inspired by Niobid or a Roman warriorette there is violence in the history of her pose.

There are two more figures to be seen. They can be found beyond the terrace and fields behind the garden’s slender reddish tree. Almost obscured within the silvery-yellow band that is the river Seine we can glimpse these miniscule boaters who are too far away to be guests at the party. One might even envy their peaceful location within this scenario. Shall we stay? It is such a beautiful place; the house and grounds are gorgeous, breathtaking really. However, my guess is that our chances of having a good laugh, making a new friend, indulging in a good feast or engaging in sparkling conversation are pretty slim. Even on such a lovely day it’s hard to predict how things might go.

2.OhDayVerge&Bow,14_x12_,Acryl_panel,'13,2copy copySusanna Coffey, Oh Day, Verge and Bow, 2013, Acrylic on panel, 14 x 12 inches
Private Collection

[1]  Terrasse, Antoine, Bonnard: The Colour of Daily Life, London: Thames & Hudson, 2000 p.107

[2] (www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJ8phzzqaWY)

[3] Greenberg, Clement, “Review of an Exhibition of Pierre Bonnard” The Nation, 12 June 1948

[4] Schjeldahl, Peter, The Village Voice, 28 July 1998

[5] “Don’t talk to me about Bonnard,” he once said. “That’s not painting, what he does. He never goes beyond his own sensibility. He doesn’t know how to choose. When Bonnard paints a sky, perhaps he first paints it blue, more or less the way it looks. Then he looks a little longer and sees some mauve in it, so he adds a touch or two of mauve, just to hedge. Then he decides that maybe it’s a little pink too, so there’s no reason not to add some pink. The result is a pot-pourri of indecision. If he looks long enough, he winds up adding a little yellow, instead of making up his mind what colour the sky really ought to be. Painting can’t be done that way. Painting isn’t a question of sensibility: it’s a matter of seizing the power, taking over from nature, not expecting her to supply you with information and good advice … that’s what I hold against Bonnard. I don’t want to be moved by him. He’s not really a modern painter: he obeys nature; he doesn’t transcend it.” Francoise Gilot Life With Picasso McGraw Hill 1964

[6] Dying Daughter of Niobe, (Niobid), c. 450-440 BC, Rome Museo Nazionale, Palazzo Massimo. Found (1906 ?) on the Esquiline, Rome

[7] The Red Flowers, 1927, Oil on cardboard, Private Collection

[8]  Hyman, Timothy, “Bonnard” World of Art, Thames and Hudson 1998, p113

Sources 

“Arrogant Purpose, 1945-1949,” The Collected Essays and Criticism Vol 2‬, University of Chicago Press, 15 Feb 1988.

Greenberg, Clement. Review of an Exhibition of Pierre Bonnard.” The Nation, 12 June 1948.

“Review of an Exhibition of Pierre Bonnard, and an Obituary of Arnold Friedman,” The Nation, 11 January 1947.