Phillips Petting Zoo: Pierre Bonnard

Installation view of two works by Pierre Bonnard in the Snapshot exhibition, both in the permanent collection at The Phillips Collection. At left is Dogs, 1893. Lithograph on Paper, 15 x 11 in. At right is Woman with Dog, 1922. Oil on canvas, 27 1/4 x 15 3/8 in. Photo: Joshua Navarro

When I entered Snapshot, the pairing of Bonnard’s painting Woman with Dog (above right) with his lithograph Dogs (above left) delighted me. By my count, the exhibition features five works in which Bonnard includes canines, and I love how each picture captures dogs doing what dogs do—begging, cuddling, running, playing, etc.

Look more closely at Dogs. Did you notice how the fluffy dog in the mid-ground is sniffing the rear of the pup he’s next to? Behind them, Bonnard includes three pooches in play bows as they get acquainted before galloping off. Do you see the black smears throughout the composition? Funny how they resemble paw prints, as though the pups ran across the surface of the composition.

Bonnard’s depiction of dogs (and cats) in his art throughout his career parallels his personal love of pets. His friend and biographer Thadée Natanson said that “a dog was always part of his person.” Apparently Bonnard owned six successive dachshunds, all named Poucette, which in French means something like “Thumbelina” or “Little Thumb.”

Though he also had a dog named Ubu (after Alfred Jarry’s play), likely that’s a Poucette in Woman with Dog. The painting shows Bonnard’s lover Marthe bowing her head and gazing tenderly at the pup in her lap, who, not surprisingly, focuses on the tasty morsels on the table. When I see this picture, I notice the dog immediately, but when I’ve spoken about this painting with others, they’ve pointed out how the pet seems almost fused to Marthe, and they miss the pup on their initial look at the painting.

Bonnard’s love for his dachshunds is well documented. Friends, family members, and biographers described Poucette as the artist’s constant companion in his later years. The pup joined him daily on morning walks, she regularly perched on her master’s knees, he pet her constantly, he gave her little nicknames, and apparently, she was often at his side as he painted. Photos from the 1940s by Andre Ostier and Henri Cartier-Bresson show the artist with Poucette.

If you’re interested in learning more about Bonnard and his connection to dogs, peruse some of the excellent articles on dog-centered websites. Start with The Bark and Fidosophy.

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