Bonnard’s Study of Color in Abstract

For those art lovers seeking abstract art New York has much to offer. If they want to delve further into the origins of abstract art, they can look to painters such as those in the artistic group known as Les Nabis.  This group, who named themselves from the Hebrew word for “prophets”, included some innovative painters, such as founding member Pierre Bonnard.

"The Letter" by Pierre Bonnard

“The Letter” by Pierre Bonnard


Art as the Personal Aesthetic Expression


The Nabis set themselves to look beyond the traditional approach to art. In particular, they felt that a work of art should reflect the personal aesthetic of the artist, the result of the individual’s combination of observation and inner response to the world around them.  By stepping away from the traditional approach to art, and focusing on aspects of design, line, and color, Les Nabis opened the way for the individual and original thinking that would develop into abstract art.

Pierre Bonnard, an early member of Les Nabis, was known for his works showing interior settings. His artistic process added to the sense of internal focus, for he preferred to do drawings of his subject, and even take photographs of them, to make notes on the colors of the setting, and then paint the subject by working from his thoughts and memories, rather than directly referencing the original subject.

Bonnard’s Use of Color


The intense use of color represents a key aspect of Bonnard’s work. His carefully composed images featured color that was built up with small brush strokes, and hue values that were close to each other.  He would paint, extracting his color choices from his sketches and notes, but creating the whole work from his thoughts and even dreams. This approach gives his work a very intense, personal quality to his pieces.

Bonnard’s “The Letter”


Bonnard’s 1906 painting “The Letter” provides an example of his use of color to shape the composition. The body of the painting is dominated by the dark colors of the letter writer’s clothes, the dark upholstery of her chair, and the dark tones of the room behind her. But the light table surface in the foreground becomes the first attention catcher, punctuated by the pink rectangle (whether it’s an envelope or handkerchief) in the lower center. The arc of the chair’s wood picks up the warm coloration of the pink, and leads the viewer’s eyes to the woman’s face.  The shape of her garment’s neckline points the eyes back down to her hands, and from there the cycle begins again.

In spite of the large area of dark color, there is a warmth to the painting, springing from the pink in the foreground, the red-brown tones in the wood, the lighter colors of her skin, with the brown-bronze downward shape on the right edge. Bonnard’s use of color gives the painting a sense of a comfortable domesticity. He has made the color carry the weight of the emotional impact.

Color and Impact


Bonnard’s use of color prepared the way for abstract artists to jump directly to the use of color without a representational subject. The combination of color and composition can do much to excite the responses of the viewer.

"Storm" by Diana Hobson

“Storm” by Diana Hobson


Diana Hobson’s “Storm” exemplifies another way of color affecting the viewer. The dark tones of blue and reddish-purple have an ominous energy to them, with dramatic shapes edged with color. Over that,  the startling lighter colors are caught in kinetic, vibrant lines zipping across the space. Color and shape, abstracted from representational objects convey the emotional intensity of the title subject. Hobson’s other works follow similar patterns.



“The Letter” by Pierre Bonnard, 1906. The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Image presented here under Fair Use Practices for information and instruction.

“Storm” by Diana Hobson, 1978. Copyright Diana Hobson. Used by permission.


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