He was born in 1867 on the out outskirts of Paris, the young Bonnard trained as a lawyer but also enrolled in the Academie Julian and the painting section of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. After he failed his civil service exam, he became involved with a small group called the Nabis (the Hebrew words for prophets), led by Paul Serusier, and inspired by Gauguin.
The Croquet Game with its carefully composed patchwork of flat patterns is clearly derived from Japanese prints. The title Crepuscule, under which it was first exhibited, suggests an affinity with the symbolic poems of Mallarmé. Its decorative appeal confirmed the ambitions of the group not to be confined to easel painting but to branch out into producing panels for interiors, book illustrations, posters and theatre designs. Sharing studios, exhibition spaces and commissions from small magazine – notably La Revue Blanche – the Nabis thrived in the artistic climate of belle-époque Paris.
Despite waspish comments on his work from some of the older generation of Impressionists, Bonnard never really had to struggle to succeed. By the turn of the last century he was working with the playwright Alfred Jarry and receiving commissions for sets of lithographs from Ambroise Vollard. He visited museums in Spain, and the Low Countries, accompanied by Edouard Vuillard. He made trips to the South of France, staying at first with Maillol, then Manguin. In 1911, perhaps flush from the commissions of the great Moscow industrialist collector Ivan Morozov, he bought an 11 CV Renault. The next year, he declined the offer of the Légion d'Honneur.
What interested Bonnard was not the representation of life itself but the representation of how we perceive life. The depiction of objects in blurred and sharp focus, in thin and thick paint, and the shimmering representation of light, combined to recreate the sense of flux we experience on first scanning a scene. At his best, Bonnard could achieve an overall visual rhythm and unity, while at the same time leaving parts of the canvas mysteriously unresolved.
Significantly, he himself did not always know when paintings were finished, working on some for years and touching up others even after they were hanging in houses and galleries.