The Kimbell Art Museum has acquired a major painting by one of the most admired artists of the 20th century – Pierre Bonnard.
The painting, Landscape at Le Cannet, is large, about 9 feet wide, and depicts the colorful, sun-washed landscape surrounding the artist’s villa near Cannes, in the south of France. It was painted in 1928.
It is a significant acquisition, says Eric M. Lee, director of the Kimbell, and he already has a location picked for the initial display that will show the painting in a perfect paring with the Kimbell.
“Bonnard is considered one of the great colorists of the 20th century. The color and light of the Mediterranean suffused this canvas. … It’s also very similar to Texas light; it’s very intense, bright light,” Lee said.
That Texas light is a major component of the charm of Louis I. Kahn’s masterpiece building for the Kimbell, where the piece went on display Aug. 31. It will be, with masterworks at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Phillips Collection, one of the most important works by Bonnard in the United States, the Kimbell said.
The colors in the Bonnard painting change in subtle ways depending on the outside light, even during the course of a short interview. Lee gestures to the painting and notes that the shapes of the mountains in the background also match the lines in the architecture of the Kahn building.
He’s already tested an initial location.
“We’re going to initially hang it center axis in the Kahn Building, so when you go up the stairs, it will be the first thing that you see,” Lee said. “We put it up there when the museum was closed. It looks so good there. It looks spectacular.”
The Kimbell, Lee said, is a very Mediterranean-inspired building and the Texas light it admits is a very Mediterranean light.
“This painting and the building complement one another just beautifully. I think it’s going to be one of the most memorable and popular paintings in the Kimbell’s collection,” he said.
“This is also an unusually large painting for the Kimbell to acquire, but I think the horizontal format and the mountains in the distance [echo] the shape of the vaults and the clerestory windows – the lunettes under the vaults ¬– beautifully,” Lee said.
Bonnard was born in a Parisian suburb in 1867 and began his career studying law but soon left to pursue art at the Académie Julian in Paris. There, he and a group of classmates, including his lifelong friend, Édouard Vuillard, founded the avant-garde group Les Nabis (the prophets).
The painting is first recorded hanging on the wall in Bonnard’s Paris apartment in 1930 in a painting by Vuillard showing Bonnard looking intently at Landscape at Le Cannet.
(A digital image can be found here: bit.ly/VuillardBonnard)
“This portrait by Vuillard shows Bonnard looking at the painting in Bonnard’s Paris studio, or Paris apartment. It’s pinned to the wall,” Lee said. “So you’ve got Bonnard in Paris dreaming of the south and the Riviera. And in this painting, Bonnard depicts his villa and the landscape around his villa in Le Cannet as an earthly paradise.”
The painting was commissioned by Henri Kapferer, a French engineer, inventor and aviator who was involved in the founding of Compagnie Générale Transaérienne, which later became Air France.
An image in the Süe archives at Cité de l’Architecture shows the painting hanging above the fireplace in Kapferer’s residence in Boulogne-sur-Seine, indicating that the painting was clearly commissioned to fit exactly in that space.
“We bought this from the Wildenstein Gallery in New York,” Lee said. “Guy Wildenstein is the current chairman of the company. It’s a very old firm. Guy’s grandmother was the niece of Henri Kapferer, the man who commissioned the painting.”
The purchase price was not disclosed.
Wildenstein told Lee about the painting – then in private hands – some time ago.
“I did not actually get a chance to see it until the European Fine Art Fair in New York in May. This was the centerpiece of the Wildenstein Gallery and yes, it was Guy Wildenstein who said this was the perfect painting for the Kimbell and he was right,” Lee said.
The Bonnard painting offers art lovers an unusual opportunity at the Kimbell. Bonnard was a friend of Henri Matisse, and the museum owns L’Asie (Asia) by Matisse.
“That painting has particular significance for Bonnard because Bonnard, who was a friend of Matisse, asked Matisse if he could borrow the painting L’Asie (Asia),” Lee said.
In a letter to Matisse about the painting, Bonnard said that the colors constantly changed throughout the day, Lee said.
“That’s interesting because since we’ve had this painting here, one thing that we’ve all noticed since it’s been in the conservation lab here, the colors are constantly shifting according to the light,” he said.
“It is quite exciting to learn of this news as Bonnard’s work is exemplary of the radical changes painting underwent in the late 19th through early 20th centuries,” said Timothy Harding, assistant professor in the Department of Fine Arts at Tarleton State University.
“His rich, acidic colors coupled with vibrant brushwork are a real feast for the eyes.” Harding said. “The subjects he presents are lively with richly painted surfaces full of energy. These stylistic tendencies certainly carry references to Monet, Cezanne, Matisse and other heavyweights of the time. I look forward to seeing it alongside the distinguished works in the Kimbell collection.”
Claire Barry, the paintings conservator at the Kimbell, says she did some minor work on the painting and several things about the work excite her.
“Most of all, it’s preserved in phenomenal condition,” Barry said. “We can see how he pinned this canvas directly to the wall to paint it. It was not painted on a stretcher; it was stretched onto the wooden stretcher afterward.”
It is, she said, almost “a tapestry of different painting techniques.”
“From the kind of dry brush impasto that you get in the foreground, where he paints the brush here or the highlights on the bark here,” she said, indicating portions of the work. “In the back, you can see him using sgraffito – carving, scoring the paint with the stylus or maybe the butt end of his brush.”
In other places, a trained eye can see very liquid brush strokes, almost washes, and more opaque ones.
“After living with this for the past few weeks in the studio, I’m beginning to make a lot of connections between the techniques that Bonnard is using here and techniques in our Matisse upstairs, who also used sgraffito, impasto and many of these techniques,” Barry said.
The Bonnard mural predates the museum’s Matisse.
In it’s announcement of the acquisition, the Kimbell said that Bonnard’s beginnings were influenced by “the sinuous lines and hues” of Paul Gauguin and that his late works inspired Mark Rothko, the ultimate colorist of the abstract age.
Bonnard is known for his scenes of daily life, centering on his own extended family; for his complex depictions of interiors, often inhabited by his wife, Marthe; for his depictions of Marthe at her toilette or in her bath; and, finally, for his landscapes, which depict with equal joy his garden at Vernon in Normandy and his house and its environs at Le Cannet.
“Among the last, Landscape at Le Cannet is the most ambitious depiction of the world that was the central setting in Bonnard’s art for the final decades of his life,” the Kimbell release said.
Taking a position on the hill above his home, which he had christened Le Bosquet for the grove of trees that surrounded it, Bonnard looked to the west, toward the Esterel mountains.
“The roof of Le Bosquet, near the tree at center of the composition, gives a sense of Bonnard’s personal scale in the context of the panorama; the two hillocks in the foreground fall towards the pathway that borders the rear of Bonnard’s property, where a girl and her dog can be seen passing by.
“Bonnard places himself in the right foreground, beside a pair of goats; a cow stands among spiky plants at the other side of the canvas. The whole composition is suffused with warm light and with a rainbow-like array of colors, from reds and oranges through the dominant yellow hue to shades of green, blue and violet,” the news release said.
Bonnard traveled extensively throughout Europe and North Africa, but it was the south of France that would greatly inform his late career.
His first visit was in 1904, to call upon the painter Paul Signac in Saint-Tropez. In subsequent years, he painted at Cagnes-sur-Mer, the home of Pierre Renoir, as well as in Grasse and in towns along the coast.
In 1926, he purchased a property near the village of Le Cannet, seeking an environment that would be good for his wife’s health.
In the 1920s, Bonnard reached his mature style and found great success as a painter.
He exhibited often throughout France and the United States, including a major exhibition, with Vuillard, in 1938 at the Art Institute of Chicago. A major retrospective planned by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, opened posthumously in 1948, in honor of Bonnard’s 80th anniversary.
A side note: Henri Kapferer, who commissioned the painting, was an associate of Wilbur Wright. He’s pictured in a photograph in the National Air and Space Museum archives with Wright in 1908.