What Art Does

Strolling down a street in Paris one day in 1893, Pierre Bonnard spotted a pretty girl as she was stepping off a tram, followed her to her place of work, and introduced himself. Tiny, slim, and as nervous as a sparrow, she told him that her name was Marthe de Méligny and she was sixteen years old. Neither statement was true. Only many years later did he learn that her real name was Maria Boursin, and that she had then been twenty-four.

By then she had changed the course of Bonnard’s life and had become inseparable from his art. Initially, their affair stimulated some of the most flagrantly erotic pictures of the late nineteenth century. In Indolence of 1899, the young Bonnard shows his mistress splayed out nude on an unmade bed, with the imprint of his body in the sheets beside her. Ten years later in The Bathroom the still voluptuous Marthe, wearing only a pair of sapphire-blue slippers, applies scent to her breasts while sunlight falls through patterned curtains, enveloping and caressing her body.

Marthe and Pierre lived en concubinage, marrying only in 1925. Because Marthe’s health was delicate (she suffered from agoraphobia and became increasingly paranoid) she rarely left Le Bosquet, the villa above Cannes they bought in 1928. Bonnard became Marthe’s carer, she his muse and model. Over the course of the fifty years they spent together he would paint her nearly four hundred times. You don’t love Bonnard for his pictorial innovation. You love him for his pictures of his little dachshund Poucette, the palm tree in his extravagantly untidy garden, and for his many paintings of the enigmatic Marthe lying in the oversized tub of her luxuriously tiled bathroom. When you see a large number of these works together, you come to know the rhythms of the household at Le Bosquet, from Bonnard’s early-morning walks to the ritual of laying the table for lunch, Marthe’s bath, and, in the evening, her reading and sewing by lamplight. Even after Marthe’s death, Pierre continued to paint images of her in her bath looking like Danae, with showers of golden light cascading down on her remembered body.

Marthe is so inextricably a part of Bonnard’s art that it is impossible to imagine it without her. But in the very first pages of his new book Michael Kimmelman asks an extraordinary question: What would have happened if, on that day in 1893, Bonnard had walked down another street, looked the other way, or headed off for a café instead of following her? What if he had just stopped to tie his shoelaces, and so missed the fateful encounter that was to change his life?

That Bonnard didn’t do any of these things is the theme of Kimmelman’s rich, allusive meditations on the relationship between art and life. At some level Marthe’s neurosis provided something Bonnard needed for his work, compelling him to live closed off from the world, and giving him the subject of virtually all his later…

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