Artists using their spouses or lovers as models is nothing unusual. It’s nice to think that a woman who plays such an intimate part in an artist’s personal life is a genuinely inspiring subject for a painting. But the cynic in me could conclude that it also serves the practical purpose of not having to pay for a professional model! Ok, I’m teasing a little. In truth, I believe that when a strong connection and familiarity exists between the artist and model, it results in work that is more emotionally acute and empathetic.
The French painter Pierre Bonnard is famous for his stunning use of color. He is also known for using his companion, Marthe Boursin, as his subject. They were together for decades beginning at the turn of the century, first as commonlaw husband and wife and eventually legally married. Their relationship was stormy at times. I found some interesting characteristics to their painting work together. First, Pierre never painted Marthe’s face, not in any detail. Second, he painted her eternally young, lithe, and healthy, regardless of her actual age or physical condition in real life. So in Bonnard’s paintings of Marthe created during the 1940s, for example, she looks youthful and robust, even though she was, in reality, an over 50 year old woman in declining health, both physically and mentally. We could speculate as to Bonnard’s reason for this, depending on how much we want to delve into his individual psychology. Hopeless romantic that I am, I like to think he was motivated purely by compassion and love for Marthe; that seeing her suffer with severe depression and a skin condition hurt him so much that he wanted to “preserve” her in his paintings. Since he was helpless to do anything else, at least he could immortalize her artistically in beauty, youth, and contentment.
Marthe’s skin condition was the reason she spent so much time soaking in the tub. Indeed, Bonnard did many paintings of her getting in and out of the tub, in the bathroom, etc. But I have chosen, instead, to post a painting of Marthe standing tall, luminous against the light, sensual and soft, ready to face the day, at peace in the comforting surroundings of domesticity.
I really like this painting. I find it very inspiring and life-affirming. It really glows. And artists, help me out here; doesn’t the interior look kind of Matisse-ish?
Here’s Bonnard’s “Nude Against the Light”: