A Museworthy Matrimony: Marthe and Pierre Bonnard

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”:


4 thoughts on “A Museworthy Matrimony: Marthe and Pierre Bonnard

  1. robert bent says:

    Hi Museworthy!
    I’m falling behind in my reading of your really great little site! I hope you won’t mind me clogging up your comments with a poem by Raymond Carver, my personal favorite writer (poems/short stories) entitled “Bonnard’s Nudes”. I think it might give a glimpse of one artist ‘s take on another and it is an interesting story:

    “His wife. Forty years he painted her.
    Again and again. The nude in the last painting
    the same young nude as the first. His wife.

    As he remembered her young. As she was young.
    His wife in her bath. At her dressing table
    in front of the mirror. Undressed.

    His wife with her hands under her breasts
    looking out on the garden.
    The sun bestowing warmth and color.

    Every living thing in bloom there.
    She young and tremulous and most desirable.
    When she died, he painted a while longer.

    A few landscapes. Then died.
    And was put down next to her.
    His young wife.”

    Sad and dynamic at once, I think.
    The painting you posted is wonderfully beautiful and balanced; the color and line quite seductive and right along the realist-abstract axis I like best. Thanks.
    I appreciated you “Venus” comments. I’ll post more of it on Rob’s Brushwork.

  2. artmodel says:

    Robert, what an extraordinary poem! Thanks so much for contributing it to Museworthy. I’m very moved by it. It is poignant, and so descriptive of Marthe and Pierre’s artistic relationship. Sheds even more light on his warm, luminous paintings of her, particularly his depiction of her as ageless, and her eternally young persona, in his eyes.
    Beautiful, and thank you again!

  3. Lynn Derriman says:

    Pierre Bonnard is most definitely THIS painter’s painter!!

    I spent 9 hours at his show at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris a couple of years ago, unable to tear myself away from the 90 works on show. I wanted to cry at the bookstore afterwards, when I compared what I had just seen, to the colour reproductions of his work in books. Pitiful!! One has to stand in front of Bonnard’s work and allow the eye and brain to be seduced, to appreciate the genius of this very underrated painter. I feel so lucky to be having the very first Bonnard Museum open next year down the road from me in Le Cannet and intend to make it my second home!!

    PS Great post!

    • artmodel says:


      Thank you so much for your passionate comments on Bonnard! Many of my artist friends agree with you about him being an underrated painter. The Bonnard show at the Met last spring was enormously popular. The day I went to see it, it was so crowded, I couldn’t believe it! People are very attracted to his work.

      And you’re so right about reproductions. An artist like Bonnard especially suffers, I think, because of his colors. Must be seen in person.

      Enjoy that museum, Lynn! And thank you again for posting your comments.


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