Saturday, October 06, 2007

ARTISTS IN LOVE, part twelve

Pierre Bonnard was a part time law student and a part time painter. A man of diverse interests and little focus, he also considered a career as an interior decorator, or possibly a set designer. But mostly he enjoyed an active social life, spending much of his time at the theatre or chatting with friends at the cafes.

Then one day Pierre saw a striking young woman getting off a trolley. He followed her to a small shop where she worked stringing beads on wreaths. Friends later described Marthe de Moligny as a "washed out Ophelia type...unstable and eccentric and morose." But Bonnard saw something special in her and persuaded her to leave the shop to become his model, his mistress, and ultimately his wife.

Pierre and Marthe were two very different people. They quarreled bitterly at first. Pierre was unfaithful to Marthe. Marthe was melancholy, a reclusive hypochondriac and a scold. When Pierre invited his friends over, Marthe would slam the door in their faces. And yet, Pierre and Marthe held on, gradually working out their differences. Each surrendered the things that were less important to them. Bonnard gave up his mistress and his social life for the reclusive Marthe. They made a home together in a small apartment with almost no furniture. There, they retreated to their inner sanctum, the tiny bathroom where Marthe loved to take long baths every day while Pierre watched and painted her again and again.


In the cramped space, his own hand or leg sometimes ended up in the picture:

But it did not matter. Bonnard had found his focus, and was on his way to becoming a great painter. The couple shed friends, entertainment and other distractions as they went deeper and deeper. As Norman MacLean once noted, Everything gets smaller on its way to becoming eternal.
Pierre worked on one painting of Marthe in the bath for two years. Altogether he is reported to have made 384 pictures of her. The couple stayed together for 50 years, and when Marthe died Pierre was disconsolate.

Marthe never cared much for material possessions, but she did covet a grand bathroom, one with windows and running hot water so she wouldn't have to heat water in a pan on the kitchen stove. For most of her life, her bathroom had just an iron bathtub, cracked plaster and wooden floors. So I find it revealing that Pierre painted her bathroom as very large, with shimmering rainbows of color and beautiful tiles, mirrors, luxuriant towels and sunlight streaming through big windows.

I imagine that's what he saw, and that's what he gave her.


Blogger micah said...

that's beautiful. i love your "artists in love" entries.

10/06/2007 8:34 AM  
Blogger G.R. said...

Ah! I think I held my breath while I read that entry, it was so beautiful. I'm going to read up more about them.

10/06/2007 2:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yesyesyes! I have waited patiently for this series to resurface. It does seem that the focus of obsessive love and isolation from other distractions does lend some people to become better at what they do. Certainly from your examples, I would say he showed marked improvement and lyricism in his work. I love the detail you gave: "her bathroom had just an iron bathtub, cracked plaster and wooden floors" and yet he painted ones the way she wished them to be.

*sigh* you are such a romantic.


10/06/2007 6:26 PM  
Blogger andreas said...

iam also a bit taken away by the story.

thank you for writing this.

10/06/2007 8:57 PM  
Anonymous Cristina said...

You have such a beautiful site and write so well. Perhaps you've been asked this before, but could you write a book about your Artists in Love series? Please consider it if you aren't writing it already.

Thanks for your website.

10/06/2007 10:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

See. I told you people love it and want more!
Cristina, great idea!

10/06/2007 11:05 PM  
Blogger idle. said...

Wonderful images. Thanks. ^_^

10/06/2007 11:57 PM  
Blogger Mark Stroud said...

That is one intense story. It's nice to hear of two people who truly found each other. As far as the art work goes it's amazing.

10/07/2007 12:21 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Micah, gr and andreas! I appreciate it.

Micah, I like the Leyendecker posting on your blog. gr, there's a lot more to the story of Bonnard and his wife. I think you'll enjoy learning about them.

10/07/2007 12:02 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Anonymous, I'm glad you like these little tales about artists in love. As I said in an earlier post, when you start mixing love with art, you get one wild and crazy chemistry experiment.

Hopefully these experiments shed a little light on the nature of art, or love, or both.

10/07/2007 12:11 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Cristina, thank you for an incredibly sweet comment. I'm still surprised that anyone pauses long enough in surfing the internet to read this blog at all, let alone to be interested in a book on this subject. In answer to your question, no, I have no current plans for a book. Right now it's a full time job just being the best "artist in love" that I can possibly be. And that's before you get to my other full time job as a lawyer. But I am truly touched by the question.

10/07/2007 12:32 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Thanks, idle and mark. Yeah, Bonnard's paintings were quite extraordinary. He also took a few blurry nude photographs of Marthe which give you a sense for their humble surroundings. They underscore how much of the magic in these paintings came from Pierre and Marthe's imaginations and their relationship.

10/07/2007 12:40 PM  
Anonymous Cristina said...

A few months ago, I found myself at Border's hunting for something along the lines of your future first book and was very disappointed not to find anything remotely like it.

There are a few blogwriters that have turned their musings into successful books (two are and Just keep it in mind, we'll wait!

10/07/2007 4:12 PM  
Blogger Matt Godwin said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

10/08/2007 3:03 PM  
Blogger lotusgreen said...


he shot photos of her too

10/08/2007 11:58 PM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Lotusgreen, I think the Degas photos of bathers were ever so much nicer than the Bonnard photos of Marthe(as the examples on your blog show). Yet, Degas was supposed to be a real bastard to his models while Bonnard was captivated by his. Go figure.

10/09/2007 1:05 AM  
Blogger easel(y)distracted said...

A great blog. I love Bonnard.

10/10/2007 5:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

great post! I love your artists in love series

10/14/2007 3:53 AM  
Blogger Dave said...


I have to say I am really taken back with the artists in love series. Like others who have commented, I have just discovered this blog and I must confess, after reading this post I definitely backtracked through your archives to find parts 1 - 12!

I know this blog is focused on art, but I've wondered if you thought about musicians in this vein. For me, the posts are reminiscent of Alexandr Scriabin: a composer fueled by his wife to write in the dying romantic style (not to mention his affliction with synesthesia!)

10/30/2007 5:20 AM  
Blogger Dragonfly Nightmare said...

thanks for your writing...I´m not sure if I feel really well now, maybe is juts sadness, but thanks for that story and the way you tell us. And, please, when you trite the book, be sure it´s possible to get it in Spain (in English will be fine).

10/30/2007 6:26 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Dave, I have long been captivated by the links between music and visual art (especially abstract art) and have thought about saying a few things about the connections. I don't know Scriabin's work, but you can bet I will look him up.

11/01/2007 11:17 AM  
Blogger David Apatoff said...

Dragonfly-- gracias, usted me honra.

11/01/2007 11:18 AM  
Anonymous Bethanie said...

I am currently completing an Art A-level and you have helped me enormously to understand bonnard and marthe's relationship for my essay. Thankyou, i shall now look at your other entries to see if they can help me further. =)

12/17/2007 8:20 AM  

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