Shades of Violet

The Green Blouse, 1919, Pierre Bonnard
“Vermillion in the orange shadows, on a cold, fine day,” Pierre Bonnard wrote in a sketchbook on one of his daily walks near his home, at Le Cannet, north of Cannes. Born in 1867 in a suburb of Paris, he settled in the South of France in 1926 with his reclusive wife, Marthe, remaining until his death in 1947. Such atmospheric observations infused the paintings that dominated the artist’s last three decades: window-framed landscapes and radiant domestic scenes depicting his wife going about her day. “The late interiors give you an understanding of how truly modernist he was,” says Dita Amory, a curator with theMetropolitan Museum of Art in New York, who has organized the first exhibition devoted to these works, opening January 27. “Shadow is never gray or black. It’s violet or purple.”

Bonnard made his mark early as part of the Nabis (“prophets” in Hebrew), the self-named group, including Maurice DenisÉdouard Vuillard and Paul Sérusier, that met at the Académie Julian, in Paris, in the late 1880s and experimented with suppressing perspective by using decorative pattern and flat areas of color. In the first decade of the 20th century, Bonnard struck out on his own. Dividing his time between the city and the country, he painted active street scenes in Paris and worked with professional models. By 1912 — when he bought a small house in Vernonnet, near Giverny, and his life with Marthe became more secluded — he had forged a distinctive technique, using oppositional hues that vibrated across his spatial fields.