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A new take on an overlooked artist

In his light-infused, brilliantly intense canvases, French artist Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) brought the use of color to a new zenith, inventing tonal relationships and vistas of hues undreamed of by his Impressionist forbears. An artist who is beyond classification ("I do not belong to any school," he said), Bonnard built upon the work of his early colleagues Monet and Renoir but pushed the boundaries of color and composition further into the modern era.

Essentially a quiet man, Bonnard was utterly dedicated to his art rather than his own aggrandizement. He was left in the shadows when Picasso and Cubism burst upon the scene about 1910. Those who know and love Bonnard's work often feel he deserves a better reputation.

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But now there is an opportunity to assess anew Bonnard in an exhibition of his work at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. "Pierre Bonnard: Early and Late" includes 60 paintings, illustrations, and other work spanning the long career of this artist. It represents a kind of American homecoming for Bonnard, whose first major American patron was Duncan Phillips – the founder of the gallery whose Bonnard collection forms the core of this exhibit.

The early Bonnard belonged to a small group of painters in Paris that called themselves "The Nabis" (meaning "prophet" in Hebrew). Around 1895, Bonnard wrote to a fellow artist to say that, while staying at a family house in the countryside, he experienced a realization which, essentially, formed his style.

The depiction of French daily life, termed "Intimism," became a favorite subject for Bonnard, particularly family dining scenes. Gradually his subject-matter included the outdoors, and although he never painted in the open air as the Impressionists did, a trademark theme became the view from an open door or window, incorporating for Bonnard the best of both worlds: the intimacy of the interior, the expansiveness of nature. "The Open Window, (1921)" seen here is perhaps his most famous treatment of this subject. Its startling tonal juxtapositions and bold composition force us to consider what the mature Matisse said during a visit to the Phillips in 1930: "Bonnard is the greatest among us."

• 'Pierre Bonnard: Early and Late' is at the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., until Jan. 19, 2003, then at the Denver Art Museum March 1 to May 25, 2003.


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