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Barron's Penta

By Abby Schultz


The French modernist painter Pierre Bonnard holds a special place at Acquavella Galleries in New York. 

The owners are drawn to Bonnard’s brilliant color palette and absorbing compositions, says third-generation co-owner Nick Acquavella. The artist is also important to the gallery because of a calculated risk by founder Nicholas Acquavella that led to a pivotal sale of Bonnard’s paintings at a 1966 exhibition by the Manhattan dealer. 

All of this may be in the background but it informs “Pierre Bonnard: The Experience of Seeing,” a loan exhibition of more than 20 works from the artist’s last 30 years that is open to the public April 12 to May 26 at Acquavella Galleries in New York. 

“He’s kind of an important artist to the family and the gallery’s history,” says the younger Acquavella.

The gallery’s focus on Bonnard also comes amid a periodic revisiting of this sometimes overlooked artist’s place in the artistic canon between impressionism and modernism. Major exhibitions are planned this year at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas and the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is spotlighting decorative paintings of the turn of the 20th century in an exhibition that includes works by Bonnard. There’s even a film out this year about the artist and his wife and muse Marthe de Méligny from French director Martin Provost titled Bonnard, Pierre and Marthe.

At Acquavella, the spring exhibition will reveal Bonnard’s saturated colors and open-ended process, where paintings of a range of subjects aren’t neatly resolved, as Bonnard specialist Sarah Whitfield details in a catalog entry for the exhibition.

“Across works from different moments in time and varied subjects, the exhibition explores how Bonnard translated the experience of optical perception with several tactics, such as shifting spaces, camouflaged and dissolving figures moving in and out of focus, and glimpsed forms hidden at the periphery,” according to a news release of the exhibition. 

The show also aims to demonstrate Bonnard’s influence on generations of artists, including color-field painters, such as Mark Rothko, in addition to contemporary practitioners, including Alex Katz, Peter Doig, and Lois Dodd, among others.

“You rarely talk to a contemporary artist who doesn’t love Bonnard,” Acquavella says. 

None of the works to be shown are for sale, but instead are owned by private collectors and museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

A painting Acquavella is personally drawn to is Grand salle à manger sur le jardin (Dining Room on the Garden), 1934-35, on loan from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York,

“My absolute favorites are the ones where you get both an interior view and then out through the window, an exterior view,” Acquavella says. Grand salle shows a breakfast room with an image of Marthe coming in from the side, the window frame, and the garden outside. “And it’s just an explosion of color that somehow works,” he says. “If I could grab one and take it home for a while, I would take that one.”

As for the history, the story goes back to a visit to Paris in the mid-1960s when Nick’s father Bill Acquavella and his grandfather, Nicholas, met a dealer who told them the Bonnard estate had recently been settled and the nieces of Bonnard’s wife now wanted to sell some of the pictures, as Bill Acquavella told the story on David Novak’s “How Leaders Lead” podcast last year. 

Bill recalled being told the paintings were “too expensive and difficult to deal with.” But his father offered to pay US$1 million for 17 pictures and asked for a loan of another 13 to put together a New York exhibition even though the gallery had less than US$100,000 in the bank.  

Bill got the idea to create one of the first color catalogs of that era for the show and then, rather boldly, sent it out with a letter to 10 of the wealthiest collectors he could think of, including David Rockefeller, Norton Simon, and Paul Mellon, offering to give them a first look, he said on the podcast. 

Bill recalled sitting in the gallery when Mellon walked in without ceremony and asked to see some of the paintings. The gallerist showed him one for US$135,000 that he said Mellon liked and said he would buy, and then he asked to see more, eventually purchasing US$1 million worth of paintings, Bill said. 

“Then we were off and running,” Nick says of the gallery’s business. “It was a big deal for us.” 

Aquavella also has a history of offering public exhibitions of 19th- and- 20th- century masters. In 2021, the gallery presented “Picasso: Seven Decades of Drawing,” focused on Pablo Picasso’s works on paper. 

While none of the Bonnard works are for sale, Aquavella says the purpose of the show is to create more awareness of Bonnard, and to bring visitors to the gallery, including their long-time collectors. Also, Acquavella, says, “Maybe someone sitting on a great Bonnard somewhere, if they decide to sell, will think of giving us a call.” 

It’s also exciting “to have these great things in the gallery,” he says. “It’s a nice month and a half to come to work.”