Women with a Dog by Pierre Bonnard looks to us like a charming vignette of some folks hanging out with a pooch in a sunny, colorful garden, and so it is. In 1891 however, Bonnard’s painting looked radical. Not to us; we’re totally used to seeing colorful, flattened, semi-abstract renderings of everyday scenes and subjects. But that’s largely because of Bonnard’s work and that of the group of young French artists he belonged to. Active in Paris between 1888 and 1900, they called themselves Les Nabis, or “The Prophets.”
The Nabis shared a common admiration for Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne and a determination to renew the art of painting. The new approach they pioneered would forever change the trajectory of Western art. They were the hinge between Impressionism and abstract art, Fauvism (Matisse), Symbolism, and the other early movements of modernism that exploded onto the twentieth century.
Their marching banner was the insight that a work of art is not a “window onto nature,” but an object in its own right, a (rather joyous) synthesis of metaphors, symbols, and self-conscious stylistic choices created by, and entirely up to, the artist.
Bonnard compressed the space in Women with a Dog and freely simplified the forms and turned up the colors to emphasize the painting’s decorative quality. He also outlined shapes in pencil and ink, occasionally scratching them into the paint, experimental techniques characteristic of the movement.
Bonnard and the other Nabis, such as Eduard Vuillard and Maurice Dennis, took their cue from the Japanese ink prints just making their way into European awareness.
It was all about color, pattern, and design.
Bonnard’s painting steers clear of the kind of sentimentality we might expect from a Victorian-era depiction of young women in a garden playing with a dog. The expressions are quizzical, the eyes downcast, closed, or omitted altogether. In this, Bonnard keeps us from identifying with the figures and reading emotion into them, which would dilute the purpose and effect of proclaiming this new creative freedom in “art for art’s sake” a non-trivial challenge to the highest and most serious fine art of the time.
Look how much of the painting is taken up by the subtle yet vibrant check pattern of the woman’s dress, how it’s ringed by a circular splash of warm golden-browns with flecks of bright red. (A closer look reveals that some of the red polkadots have dislodged themselves from the woman’s scarf and popped up again on the dog’s ear!)
There is a beautiful and highly meaningful match between the playful subject matter and the playfulness of Bonnard’s challenge to “serious” painting. If the women’s expressions happen look a little serious, all the better; this entire painting is all about serious play; the kind of serious play that these “Prophets of Modern Art” were engaged in, the sort with the kind of offhand, joyful freedom and delight in experimentation that can sometimes change the course of history.