So far we’ve talked a lot about narrative paintings, compositions which are based on or tell a specific story. For the next couple of weeks, we’ll focus more on portraiture. Today, we’ll spend the day with Pierre Bonnard’s “Portrait of Leila Claude Anet”. Painted in 1930, the work is a little over four feet tall, and a little under three feet wide.
Oil paintings are traditionally painted on a neutral base, like burnt umber or grey, to prevent the bright white of an untreated canvas from interfering with the painter’s color judgments. Bonnard’s painting, however, leaves the white of the canvas untreated. He was a master of color, and frequently used color rather than line to show the contours and movements of forms.
Ah, the careful color web in which he traced his subject. Paint applied so thin it was translucent. This is why he used a white background–his paintings are liquid color shining through to the white base. His subject in this painting is a young woman with a level gaze, legs crossed, in a white blouse and blue striped skirt.
It is primarily a composition in blue and orange, but not without some red and purple hues. He left the canvas primer exposed to speak for her blouse in the light, laying thick paint in pale tones to mention its curves in the shadows. (And such tones! Zoom in on her stomach: there is green, blue, pink, mauve, grey, and even some brown.)
Her face is textured, heavily worked over, mostly orange. A cool green marks where the left edge of her brow shifts glancingly away from the light. The bridge of her nose is the sole feature marked out in crisp outline– carved by a thin but precise line of white.
The rest of the paint is so thin, and so lightly applied, that Bonnard’s loose sketch in pencil shows through. It is no more anatomically or geometrically correct than the painting. That, of course, was never the point of this portrait. An image can represent its subject in ways never dreamt by a mirror; why should it always imitate one?
Bonnard works at the intersection of watercolor and oil; he updates John Singer Sargent with a humble and meek daubing of paint. The lighting is simple: a single warm source from the upper right, somewhere above the sitter’s head. It casts a shadow on the left side of her face, and her head casts a small shadow on her shoulders. The chair’s colors change to blue and orange where it is hit by the light, retreating to red, brown and purple in shadow.
Typical of Bonnard’s work, the sitter’s head is delicately painted, a touch too small, and the jaws undefined. It seems vulnerable and lost, but simultaneously grounds the whole composition with its steady gaze and built up texture.
Sargent, too, painted loosely all the surroundings of the sitter, reserving the fixed detail work for the head. For him the fluid brushwork was a musician’s flawless performance, to be rehearsed until the final gesture appeared effortless as it suggested the turn of an arm, a twist of silk, or the recesses of a shadow. All these strokes, however magnificent, were only stage and set for the real star, the head. These were carefully built up, and polished to an insane finish. We’ll look at Sargent next week.
Bonnard eschews polish. For him, paint is still paint, not a glittering window to a second world. More still, the edges are clearly diluted paint- visible strokes and scumbling. The gaze, which in Sargent is always so direct, is deferred or obscured in Bonnard. you know where the eyes are by where the shadows fall, but you can’t quite make contact. The sitter looks forever just past you, in an ephemeral world always coming into being and simultaneously about to dissolve. In short, in a world not unlike our own.