Beauty captured in an 'instant': Pierre Bonnard's transformation of the everyday
The main purpose of this thesis is to demonstrate how the French Symbolist values that Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) acquired as a young painter in Paris in the 1890s continued to shape his artistic aims throughout his long career. Spanning the course of six decades, Bonnard’s artistic output has often been divided by art historians into two separate phases that distinguishes a so-called late period from his earlier body of work, an impulse to categorise the artist’s work that I resist. Instead, I argue that, while Bonnard was constantly developing new techniques and strategies in which to present his work, there is nevertheless a consistency to the objectives he adheres to throughout his career that should be seen through the lens of French Symbolism, particularly the variant advocated by the poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-98). Bonnard shared with Mallarmé a desire to produce in the artwork something attaining to ‘beauty’, a poetic presentation of nature in which the otherwise contingent data of the physical world is reimagined as something meaningful. Crucially, I argue that Bonnard’s artistic practice relied heavily on the concept of the ‘instant’, an epiphanic moment in which the inner mind of the subject briefly feels connected with the external world. This interrelationship between the imagination and nature as a means in which the artist can produce something beautiful puts Bonnard at odds with many other Symbolist practitioners of the late nineteenth century, who often poured scorn on the visible world by placing primary emphasis on the internal mind of the artist. Nevertheless, in realising that Bonnard continued to practice a Mallarméan form of Symbolism over the course of his life, it becomes evident that there is an overall cohesiveness to the artist’s body of work that defies the classifications of critics.