The best novel ever written about marriage, “Light Years” by James Salter, has the Pierre Bonnard painting “The Breakfast Room,” on the cover, and Salter has said in interviews that he often thought of Bonnard’s work during the writing of the novel.
The painting, which shows a sumptuous breakfast on a table that looks out, via a huge glass window, onto a garden bristling with green, says as much in a single image as Salter does in 320 pages. Inside, it’s warm, and there’s food. Outside, the world is chaotic but teeming with life.
But the more you look at the painting, the more the comfort seems to shade into claustrophobia. You notice the window doesn’t open, and that even if you got outside, there’s a sturdy stone barrier separating you from the garden. Is this a dining room, or a prison cell? (The fact that that’s the perfect description of marriage is exactly why Salter chose the painting for the cover of his book.)
Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but probably not. Bonnard and his fellow “Nabis,” a late 19th-century movement that included fellow Frenchmen Vuillard, Maillol, Ranson, Roussel and Denis, depicted domestic life in a deceptively simple style, combining pleasing visuals with an uncompromising truthfulness.
You can’t look at Vuillard’s “The Marriage Bed,” one of the works on display at the Phillips Collection, as part of their “Bonnard to Vuillard: the Intimate Poetry of Everyday Life” exhibition, and not see commentary in the blood-red, comically oversized bed looming in the corner.
Not all the works are so sinister, though; they did a lot of work on commission for wealthy patrons, so the exhibition includes works like stained-glass and needlepoint tapestries that are simply nice to look at.
The Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW; Tickets, $10-$12; see website for hours.