Pierre Bonnard: The Colour of Memory at Tate Modern

When I think of the work of painter and printmaker Pierre Bonnard, I immediately conjure up his love of soft, yet intense colour schemes and languorous sense of domesticity. Precious time spent looking through a window, lying in a bath, relaxing on the sofa, and the appreciation of a typical French Bistro meal or a simple, well prepared, home-cooked meal.

© Pierre Bonnard. Detail from L'atelier au mimosa 1939-46.

His interest in food, particularly French Bistro cuisine, is apparent in his recurring use of the classic red check tablecloth. Tate Modern is even offering a special Bonnard-inspired menu while the show is on.

The current exhibition contains a couple of surprises, works which deviate from the domestic life of many of his most remembered works, but doesn’t disappoint in the huge array of paintings on show depicting the perfect state of domestic bliss. A subject which resulted in him being termed an ‘Intimist’. Having moved to the South of France he produced exquisite landscapes, often taking photographs and also painting from memory.

Often considered the last of the Impressionists, Bonnard was part of an avant-garde, Post-Impressionist group who called themselves Les Nabis, with an interest in flat colour. While Matisse was an admirer, Picasso was critical, calling Bonnard’s work “a pot pouri of indecision” because of they way he added colour upon colour, as he saw in nature, to build up his landscapes and natural forms.

It’s here we would have to disagree with Picasso’s view, because it is Bonnard’s visual appreciation, the very skill of layering colour and the way he perceived these colours, which gives his work a dreamlike quality and is perhaps also a reflection of his own reported calm nature. Although he is known for his paintings, Bonnard also designed furniture and developed textile pattern - his love of textiles is apparent in many of his paintings.

The skill of colour layering - knowing which colour hue and texture works with specific settings and to what effect - is at the heart of an interior designer’s craft. The exhibition is so inspiring we went in search of some interior ideas which reflect Bonnard’s love of nature, life and essentially the domestic interior as a place of personal expression and comfort…

This collection of textiles by John Derian for Designers Guild is a brilliant example of skillful and confident layering of pattern and colour.


Bonnard’s muse for over fifty years was his wife Marthe, he painted her repeatedly in the bathtub using dazzlingly, rich hues.

The bathroom was also a form of therapy for her, and for many of us the bathroom is a retreat from the world and a wonderful place to relax and unwind. We’re sure she would have loved this selection of Victorian-style baths.


Bonnard’s other great inspiration was the domestic meal, whether a simple cup of coffee and cake, a bowl of fruit, or the anticipation of a meal, the dining table was a key theme. Not forgetting the ever present pet dachshund.


His red check tablecloth was a recurring theme… take a look at Ian Mankin fabrics, a long established company and the go-to supplier for the perfect check or stripe in a myriad of colour themes.


Bonnard would often use white as a foil for his colour layering in his depiction of interiors. The use of white against a strong colour works well in a traditional interior and can be used to very good effect, adding a sense of sophistication as seen here in these paint colour examples from Paint & Paper Library.


Bonnard’s use of intense colour is often coupled with softer tones and pastels. Here are some examples of colour combinations which we think are effective in a variety of interiors both contemporary and traditional.


For more inspiration catch the Pierre Bonnard exhibition at Tate Modern until 6 May 2019

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Pierre Bonnard, Le déjeuner 1932.