In this unusual self-portrait Bonnard slips into the role of a boxer practicing hooks and jabs in front of a mirror. We see him from his own point of view, looking at his reflection. The picture was done at a time when Bonnard had to face criticism due to his approach, which diverged from current styles such as Surrealism and abstraction. In Le Boxeur, as in other of his melancholy-seeming self-portraits, one senses the internal monologue the artist must have held with himself and his art, probing and self-critical.
A founder member of the French Nabi movement and a radiant colourist, Pierre Bonnard painted almost a dozen self-portraits, most of them in later life. He very rarely dated these works, the first of which he painted while he was an art student of twenty-two, in 1889 (Private Collection). In the 1930s he developed an interest in depicting himself in front of a mirror; the last in this series is thought to have been completed in 1945, two years before his death.1
A self-portrait often implies an artist’s direct engagement with a mirror, but unlike the Impressionists, Bonnard did not paint directly from the motif, preferring instead to make drawings, sketches and colour notes and then working up his paintings in the studio. He believed that painters capable of tackling the motif directly were very rare, declaring, ‘It is not a matter of painting life. It’s a matter of giving life to painting’.2
Like Matisse, he used colour and decoration determined the essential qualities of his art. Bonnard admired not only Japanese prints and screens but also Persian and Indian miniatures, capturing something of their iridescent multiplicity in this self-portrait with its brilliant orchestration of near and far views and its vibrant notes of Indian yellow, ultramarine, emerald green, creamy white and deep, reddish purple.
1- Terrasse called this ‘an internal examination of self’ which showed an artist who ‘lived at a remove from the world, sacrificing all to the passion for art’ see Antoine Terrasse, ‘Bonnard: The Colour of Daily Life’, trans. Laurel Hirsch, Thames and Hudson, London 2000, p.108.
2- Angèle Lamotte, ‘Le Bouquet de Roses – Propos de Pierre Bonnard recueillis en 1943′, ‘Verve 5′, nos 17-18 (August 1947) n.p. Bonnard continues: ‘… those [painters] who were able to extricate themselves from it [the motif] had a very personal defence. Faced with the motif, Cézanne had a solid idea of what he wanted to do – taking from nature only what was relevant to his idea.’ See also Bonnard 1946, in Antoine Terrasse, ‘Les Notes de Bonnard’ in ‘Bonnard’, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 1984, p.202