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Exploring Emotions through Color: The Art of Pierre Bonnard



I just came back from a weekend trip painting with friends to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, located just about an hour west from Washington, D.C. On the last day of the trip, we went to see the Bonnard's Worlds special exhibition at the Phillips Collection, a retrospective of Pierre Bonnard's works organized by recurring themes in his work such as the landscape, windows, interiors, bathing nudes, and the dining table.


Curating the show in this way made it easier to for me to immerse myself into Bonnard's way of seeing and to better understand what he loved and valued over his life. He loved his quiet life with his wife and their cat and dog. And the way he uses color to convey his emotions to his daily experiences is what draws me into his world.


Pierre Bonnard lived from 1867 to 1947 in southeastern France. He was a member of the Nabis, a group of painters dedicated to using art as a way to express emotions and feelings, rather than an observed representation of the world. You can can see this idea persist across Bonnard's uses colors to convey a mood and not only to describe his subject. For example, he uses yellows and oranges to portray a sense of warmth and energy, even when the scene is a darkened interior or a green garden. He also uses color to direct the viewers attention away from certain areas, such as a figure, and towards other areas, like a view of the garden.



What I really enjoyed about seeing his work in person is how he used a window or trees to frame his scenes. It creates the illusion that we are looking into a deep space, with building or the sea far in the distance. I also enjoyed seeing the wide variety of brushmarks and the layers of paint that he applied using a relatively small brush compared to the overall painting. It shows how much time he spent building these paintings and the amount of energy he invested in making the marks. The close values in the colors make it feel like they vibrate next to each other, such as a saturated yellow next to a muted orange.



Bonnard didn't paint from life. Instead he would make small sketches for references or paint from his memory. His paintings feel so singular because he creates his reality, he doesn't depict it. He chooses specific details and gestures that are significant in his recollection of that precise moment in time. Bonnard teaches me to trust in my own vision and to be bold as I paint, to believe that in my experience and to convey it as accurately as possible. I am also developing my own sketchbook practice so I can learn how to create my own impressions of the world around me.


If you haven't seen the show, you can see it online. If you are in the DC area, I highly recommend you see it in-person at the Phillips Gallery. The show closes June 2nd, 2024.



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