Literature Limning Art

While reading The Sea by John Banville recently, I came upon a passage in which the author describes in detail a painting by the French post-impressionist Pierre Bonnard. The narrator, Max Morden, has been at work on, as he says “…a monograph on Bonnard, in which I have been mired for more years than I care to compute.”

Nude in the Bath and Small Dog (1941–46) Oil on canvas. Pierre Bonnard

Later in the book he describes the painting entitled Nude in the Bath and Small Dog (although he gets the title wrong) started by Bonnard 1941 and finished in 1946. the subject is the artist’s late wife, Marthe de Meligny (her real name was Maria Boursin). Banville’s Morden describes the work thus:

“…she lies there, pink and mauve and gold, a goddess of the floating world, attenuated, ageless, as much dead as alive, beside her on the tiles her little brown dog, her familiar, a dachshund, I think, curled watchful on its mat or what may be a square of flaking sunlight falling from an unseen window. The narrow room that is her refuge vibrates around her, throbbing in its colors. Her feet, the left one tensed at the end of its impossibly long leg, seem to have pushed the bath out of shape and made it bulge at the left end, and beneath the bath on that side, in the same force field, the floor is pulled out of alignment too, and seems on the point of pouring away into the corner, not like a floor at all but a moving pool of dappled water. All moves here, moves in stillness, in aqueous silence. One hears a drip, a ripple, a fluttering sigh. A rust-red patch in the water beside the bather’s right shoulder might be rust, or old blood, even. Her right hand rests on her thigh, stilled in the act of supination, and I think of Anna’s hands on the table that first day when we came back from seeing Mr. Todd, her helpless hands with palms upturned as if to beg something from someone opposite her who was not there.”

Anna is the narrator’s doomed wife, a supplicant to both cancer and the allusive stamp of Mr. Todd, her physician. The painting seems an apt analogical device for Banville’s short yet profound novel he called The Sea; as Pierre Bonnard himself wrote of his chosen vocation, “There is a formula, which fits painting perfectly: many little lies to create a great truth.”


Originally published at jonesbook.blogspot.com on August 23, 2015.