Bonnard’s Sidewalk Theater

FIGURE-1-Bonnard-The-Cab-Horse-c.-1895-oil-on-wood-11.7-x-15.75-in-National-Gallery-DCBridget Alsdorf at nonsite:

Every morning before breakfast, sketchpad in hand, Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) went for a walk to observe and absorb his surroundings. This lifelong practice began early, when the artist launched his career in Paris in the tumultuous fin-de-siècle period, long before he left the urban sidewalks for the greener paths of Vernon and Le Cannet.1 These daily walks were his way of immersing himself, both visually and bodily, in the life of the city and – along with the radical perspectives and bold linear patterns of Japanese ukiyo-e prints2 – inspired many of his early works. Bonnard produced over one hundred paintings and prints in the 1890s that capture the bustling pace and brisk energy of Paris. He later referred to this subject as “the theater of the everyday,”3 and it is his particular vision of this sidewalk theater, and the viewer’s involvement in it, that I will investigate here, with particular attention to how his engagement with new media mattered to developing this vision. In particular, Bonnard’s use of color and his plays with space and figure-ground relations take advantage of the limits and potentials of printmaking as a medium, a medium that was more immediate and accessible yet less flexible than the painting for which he would become known. Playing off the chromatic constraints of lithography, Bonnard shuttles the viewer between foreground and background, intimate proximity and distance. In so doing he explores the duality of the street as a disorienting amalgam of schematic backdrops and looming intrusions into our personal space, both seemingly captured at the limits of our visual field.

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