Bonnard was forty-five years old when, in 1912, he purchased a small house named Ma Roulotte (My Caravan, or Trailer) in Vernonnet, a village across the river Seine from the small town of Vernon in Normandy, north of Paris. He retained accommodation and a studio in the capital but lived and worked at Ma Roulotte in the spring and summer. He shared his life with Maria Boursin (1869 - 1942), known as Marthe, whom he had met in 1893 and whom he married in 1925. She is, of course, best known as the nude figure lazily washing and bathing herself in innumerable paintings and drawings—a regime of ablutions that was, in fact, dictated by her increasingly precarious health. Although these and many other images of her suggest a life of chic indolence, she still managed to be an attentive housekeeper at Ma Roulotte and, later, at the Bonnards’ second home in the south of France, Le Bosquet, at Le Cannet near Cannes. In Bonnard’s interior views of these two houses, she is often the quietly presiding figure, a ghostly presence hovering at the edge of a room, passing across a doorway, or glimpsed, with a cat or dachshund in her lap, in a chair beyond the main motif of a painting. At other times, as here at the dining table, she is a vivid and tangible presence.
A family or group of friends at lunch or dinner is one of the key subjects of the Nabis, the loose association of painters formed in the 18gos that included Edouard Vuillard, Félix Vallotton, Maurice Denis, and Bonnard himself. The subject gave these artists the opportunity to explore several components of their aesthetic vocabulary— close interiors, overlapping figures, different light sources (windows, overhanging lamps), and, of course, still life in relation to people. Claude Monet’s The Dinner of about 1868-69 (Foundation E. G. Biihrle Collection, Ziirich) set a precedent for these intimiste scenes. But where Vallotton or Paul Signac, the Pointillist contemporary of the Nabis, might introduce the sharp flavor of social or psychological observation, Bonnard and Vuillard are more concerned with gesture, odd formal relations, and the diverse coloristic feast offered by a laden table. Bonnard often goes further and introduces a personal note in his eloquent evocation of mood, frequently through the inimitable self-absorption of Marthe, with her particular demeanor expressive of a kind of fatigued delight in the French ritual of a perfectly prepared, swiftly consumed lunch.
The round table in the small dining room of Ma Roulotte (in contrast to the large, oblong table in the more spacious dining room at Le Bosquet) is the subject of this painting, the quintessence of Bonnard in the 1920s. It is seen from above and from
behind a serving table or sideboard that forms a red triangle at the lower left—the type of viewpoint often adopted by Bonnard. Marthe looks toward the subdued, casually dressed man on the far side of the table (almost certainly Bonnard himself). Her bobbed hair and striped red blouse are familiar from several other paintings of the early 1920s, especially Woman with Dog of 1922 (The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.). Lunch, it seems, is over: a napkin is crumpled at the table edge and the plate and spoon have been pushed aside. Should the couple have coffee here or on the veranda? What are their plans for the afternoon? So often such suggestions of day-to-day dialogue hover over the surface of Bonnard’s paintings.
The picture’s gently sloping direction from top left to lower right, emphasized by the striped cloth, is abruptly halted by Marthe’s right arm casually poised along the table edge; the dark fall of the tablecloth glimpsed between her arms balances the red segment of side table. Such formal compression of an apparently random scene and a generally warm palette characterize Bonnard’s small-format domestic interiors of the 1920s. This one was painted in the studio, almost certainly from pencil notations and studies.
Signed (upper right) Bonnard
Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Paris, acquired from the artist, 1923;
purchased from that dealer by Knoedler and Co., 1927;
repurchased from Knoedler by Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Paris, 1930;
purchased from Bemheim-Jeune by VArt Moderne, Lucerne; Seligmann Galleries, New York; Stephen Carlton Clark (1882-1960), New York, 1931;
given anonymously to the Museum of Modern Art, New York (acc. no. 453.37), 1937; deaccessioned by that institution by sale to Richard L. Feigen and Co., New York (stock no. 4913-B), April 21, 1971;
purchased from that dealer by Mr. and Mrs. Philip Levin, April 21, 1971; The Philip and Janice Levin Foundation, 2001.
Venice 1930, no. 99 (as lent by Bernheim-Jeune, Paris);
New York 1934;
Chicago 1938-39, no. 38;
San Francisco 1939-40;
New York 1940-41;
New York 1944;
New York 1945-47;
Palm Beach 1948;
Cleveland, New York 1948, (no. 54);
Syracuse, New York 1949;
New London 1950;
New York 1951-53;
Lyons 1954, NO. 61;
New York 1954-55;
Sarasota 1956, no. 31;
South Hadley 1956;
Palm Beach 1957, no. 16;
London 1966, (no. 193).