Pierre Bonnard was a part time law student and a part time painter. A man of diverse interests and little focus, he also considered a career as an interior decorator, or possibly a set designer. But mostly he enjoyed an active social life, spending much of his time at the theatre or chatting with friends at the cafes.
Then one day Pierre saw a striking young woman getting off a trolley. He followed her to a small shop where she worked stringing beads on wreaths. Friends later described Marthe de Moligny as a “washed out Ophelia type…unstable and eccentric and morose.” But Bonnard saw something special in her and persuaded her to leave the shop to become his model, his mistress, and ultimately his wife.
Pierre and Marthe were two very different people. They quarreled bitterly at first. Pierre was unfaithful to Marthe. Marthe was melancholy, a reclusive hypochondriac and a scold. When Pierre invited his friends over, Marthe would slam the door in their faces. And yet, Pierre and Marthe held on, gradually working out their differences. Each surrendered the things that were less important to them. Bonnard gave up his mistress and his social life for the reclusive Marthe. They made a home together in a small apartment with almost no furniture. There, they retreated to their inner sanctum, the tiny bathroom where Marthe loved to take long baths every day while Pierre watched and painted her again and again.
In the cramped space, his own hand or leg sometimes ended up in the picture:
But it did not matter. Bonnard had found his focus, and was on his way to becoming a great painter. The couple shed friends, entertainment and other distractions as they went deeper and deeper. As Norman MacLean once noted, Everything gets smaller on its way to becoming eternal. Pierre worked on one painting of Marthe in the bath for two years. Altogether he is reported to have made 384 pictures of her. The couple stayed together for 50 years, and when Marthe died Pierre was disconsolate.
Marthe never cared much for material possessions, but she did always covet a grand bathroom, one with windows and running hot water so she wouldn’t have to heat water in a pan on the kitchen stove. For most of her life, her bathroom had just an iron bathtub, cracked plaster and wooden floors. So I find it very revealing that Pierre painted her bathroom as very large, with shimmering rainbows of color and beautiful tiles, mirrors, luxuriant towels and sunlight streaming through big windows.
I imagine that’s what he saw, and that’s what he gave her.
ARTISTS IN LOVE, part twelve