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Pierre Bonnard: Painting Arcadia at the Legion of Honor

Pierre Bonnard, The Large Garden, 1895. Oil on canvas. 168 x 221 cm. Musée d’Orsay. Photo: © 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

One always talks of surrendering to nature. There is also such a thing as surrendering to the picture.
— Pierre Bonnard

The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco presents the first major international presentation of Pierre Bonnard’s work in nearly half a century.

More than 70 works spanning Bonnard’s entire career are on view. Living in the worlds between expressionism and abstraction, Bonnard was idiosyncratic, and he defied easy categorization in his approach to subject matter and technique. He studied at the Academie Julian in Paris, where he was a student and follower of Paul Gauguin. Gauguin inspired a group of young painters called Les Nabis (or The Prophets). Their painterly, abstract approach to color was meant to revitalize art.

Never long affiliated with a single school or style, Bonnard worked in multiple genres and techniques, and he was inspired by art from other cultures, such as Japanese woodblock prints and Mediterranean mosaics. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Bonnard often painted from memory rather than life. After sketching scenes and making lengthy notes about color, he would return to his studio not so much to recreate what he’d seen, but rather to allow time to transform images from precise recollections into dreamlike memory.

Many of Bonnard’s most well-known paintings are on view, including The Work Table. Flat fields of bright colors define his domestic interior paintings, where color acts as an end to itself instead of a means to communicate space or proportion. The delightful series Women in the Garden (pictured on page 1) is also featured in this exhibition. The bright, abstract and decorative patterns reminiscent of Japanese art are closely related to other contemporary Post Impressionist stylings. These paintings were originally conceived as four panels of a folding screen, but the artist ultimately preferred the compositions to be viewed separately. Almond Tree In Bloom, a small, intimate work painted at the end of the artist’s life, shows a tree shining with color in midday light.

“Bonnard’s arcadia is filled with poetry, wit, color, and warmth,” said Esther Bell, curator in charge of European paintings. “This selection of highlights from his career will make clear the artist’s important role in the history of French Modernism.”

Arcadia, in the context of this exhibition, means “a beautiful place.” Arcadia is also in a sense unattainable beauty, the moments that don’t last. Bonnard said, “A painting that is well composed is half finished.” Unpredictable, fleeting moments accumulate and become the narrative of time: never lasting, but how bright and spectacular those moments can be.

Pierre Bonnard: Painting Arcadia: Tuesday–Sunday through May 5, 9:30 a.m.–5:15 p.m.; Legion of Honor, Lincoln Park, 100 34th Avenue; 415-750-3600,, $20.

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Sharon Anderson is an artist and writer in Southern California. She can be reached at