Bonnard’s Nude at a Mirror or The Toilette (1931)

In art a woman looking into a mirror, a common subject, is a give-away. As EPPH has explained about Manet's Before the Mirror (1876) or Picasso's Girl Before a Mirror (1932) Bonnard turns his female model (left) - his wife, Marthe - into a representation of himself. She is both model and artist.1 Dita Amory has written: "One could argue that in this painting Marthe is a surrogate for the painter, and her cloth a surrogate for the rag Bonnard so often held in his hand while painting. Amplifying the metaphor, the mirror becomes a sort of canvas..."2 

In addition, as Amory noted, many of the passages within the painting are ambiguous and difficult to define with the objects in the mirror more clearly described than those outside. Like the stained-glass, rose window of a medieval cathedral, much of this painting is a confusing, multi-colored shimmer of light. Why? What is going on?

Click next thumbnail to continue

Captions for image(s) above:

Bonnard, Nude at a Mirror or The Toilette (1931) Oil on canvas. Galleria Internazionale d'Arte Moderna, Venice

Click image to enlarge.

We are inside Bonnard's mind where mental images fragment and distort as they do in our own3. Objects are more defined in the mirror because they are a "painting" imitating visual perception. All else is inside his own head which is why mental images of Bonnard's face appear repeatedly. For instance, black ink on what looks like curtains (far left) presents a simple, caricatural "self-portrait". The large circles at top are his iconic glasses. This "face" is then reflected up and down the curtain in the mirror, most visibly in the vertical stretch of blue. (Click prior image to see that detail.)

Click next thumbnail to continue

Captions for image(s) above:

L: Detail of Bonnard's Nude at a Mirror (1931)
R: Detail rotated of Bonnard's Self-Portrait (c.1933) Oil on canvas. Bemberg Foundation, Toulouse

Click image to enlarge.

This same "face" also appears (inverted horizontally) in Marthe's lower back and buttocks. Compare the coloring of her flesh (top left) to the lines of his face in the curtain (top right). In the left-hand diagram below, Bonnard's subtle shading is outlined for easier comparison. His "eyes" are intentionally over her womb because they conceive the painting as his own androgynously creative mind.

Click next thumbnail to continue














 

Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Two details of Bonnard's Nude at a Mirror (1931). The one on the left has been inverted.
Bottom L & R: Diagram of detail above & Detail above

Click image to enlarge.

Now notice in the block of green (left) a disembodied left "eye" facing us with a large blue pupil (right). It is surrounded by the color of fertility. In its respective place in the mirror-canvas, again under the plate of peaches, there is yet another face....

Click next thumbnail to continue

 

Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Bonnard's Nude at a Mirror (1931) 

Click image to enlarge.

The central table leg forms a "nose" with red "eyes" in the distant carpet (top left).4 The "mouth" - lines in the mirror's frame - suggests Bonnard crosses the border from the reality of the "painting" into that of the "studio". Besides, the ear of the chair's stile is strangely circled in white (top left) and joined by the line of the chair's top rail to his "mouth" in the frame. It resembles the long pipes he used to smoke (bottom) and symbolizes, as tobacco often does, an imagination intoxicated.5

Most images explained on EPPH are imaginative depictions of the painting itself being conceived in the artist's mind. Thus, like Bonnard's painting, they do not depict historical time but are endlessly created anew in every viewing in an ever-present 'now'. This, as we show, is not unique to Bonnard nor the 20th century. It is central to spirituality in all ages and has been a basic feature of visual art (and much great literature too) from at least the early Renaissance and, probably, from long before.

Captions for image(s) above:

Top L & R: Detail and diagram of Bonnard's Nude at a Mirror (1931) 
Bottom: Bonnard smoking a pipe in the garden at Le Grand-Lemps (1906)

Click image to enlarge.

For examples of other self-portraits by Bonnard as mental images, see EPPH entries on After the Bath (1910), Salon des Cent (1896), The Pushcart (c.1897) and Fruit on a Red Tablecloth (c.1943).

Notes at bottom of page

Notes:

1. Bonnard's model was usually his wife, Marthe, who remained young in his paintings even she herself aged. This procedure itself suggests that Bonnard thought of his wife within his paintings as both his ideal model and the female half of his mind.

2. Pierre Bonnard: The Late Still Lifes and Interiors (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art) 2009, p. 118

3. For an explanation of what mental images look like and their importance to creative minds in many periods, see "Cubism Explained" (2011) and "Mental Images from Holbein, Ingres and Picasso" (2012).

4. The drawers on the table above his "eyes" - one green - are like a second set of eyes, the eyes of the mind, a not uncommon feature of such portraits.

5. See the theme "Smoking Art" for further explanation.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 07 Sep 2015. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.