Pierre Bonnard

The masterful modernist manipulated light, form and focus to create color-strewn scenes of everyday life

Though the public loved his happily colored landscapes, his well-lit scenes of domestic life, his erotic and classically posed nudes, and his penetrating self-portraits, when he died in 1947 at age 79, the French painter Pierre Bonnard was viewed by many critics as a primitive generator of color who belonged far more to the 19th century than to the 20th. Over the past five decades that view has changed dramatically. "So much so," writes Stanley Meisler, "that Bonnard is now widely regarded as one of our century's most complex and masterful painters."

An extraordinary Bonnard retrospective, which opened at the Tate Gallery in London in February, will be on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from June 17 to October 13. "Bonnard was not interested in competing with contemporary painters," says the show's curator, British art historian Sarah Whitfield. "He was interested in competing with the history of art." And he did so, writes Meisler, "with a host of modern, radical approaches."

In his 20s Bonnard was part of a group of artists, known as the Nabis, who were interested in manipulating color and composition to evoke a feeling or a mood. During his association with the Nabis, Bonnard created posters, produced numerous sets of lithographs, designed furniture and stained glass, and, of course, painted--mostly street scenes of Paris, everyday snapshots of his family in their garden, and voluptuous nude portraits of his reclusive model and mistress (later his wife), Marthe.

But in 1914, when he was 46, Bonnard went through a period of self-doubt and reassessment that led to his most complex and carefully wrought paintings. In these late canvases, the critic John Russell has written, Bonnard showed "qualities of daring and invention" that outshined the fantasies of the Surrealists, the color of the Fauves and the multiple viewpoints of the Cubists.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.