Marthe Bonnard Yesterday I wrote about Bonnard’s sketches, and included an unkind description of his wife Marthe. “Bonnard’s wife Marthe was a difficult and neurotic woman who spent a disproportionate amount of her day in obsessive washing and bathing. Thanks to this quirk, Bonnard made many intimate figurative works.” I had read that Marthe was neurotic, difficult, and bathed constantly. In writing this, I may have inadvertently perpetuated some misogyny. As you are likely aware, women are often dismissed as being emotional and difficult when they are suffering from chronic health conditions. I think this may be the case with Marthe. Just below the articles I read which described Marthe as difficult, were other articles hypothesizing that Marthe may have had tuberculosis, potentially caused by her hard and low paid work making artificial flowers. Her “incessant” bathing could have been hydrotherapy, a common treatment for TB at the time. If she had TB, the lady was likely very uncomfortable, and doing what she could to treat her illness. These were not luxurious sponge and bubble baths. Hydrotherapy is cold, icy water. She was likely massaging and immersing her body in cold to relieve inflammation and encourage her body to fight the disease, according to the medical advice of the time. Hydrotherapy. Tuberculosis (TB) patient undergoing a massage bath treatment. Hydrotherapy became a popular treatment for tuberculosis in the 19th and early 20th centuries after the Bavarian priest Sebastian Kneipp claimed to have cured himself from TB by immersing himself in icy water. Photographed in Devonshire Hospital, Buxton, Derbyshire, UK. Source: ScienceSourceArchive Historical artwork of a doctor treating a patient with the internal and external application of water, a practice known as hydrotherapy. This therapy was made popular in the early 19th century by Vincent Priessnitz. 19th century illustration. Take another look at this painting. Look at the water, the way she’s sitting in it, the hard square crop on both ends of the composition, and the expression on her face. Does the story look different now? The Bath 1925 Pierre Bonnard According to Tate, Marthe was a lower class than bourgeois Pierre, and his family and friends could be quite harsh on her. “Her early life was one that most of Bonnard’s bourgeois family and friends would never understand. Many of them found her ‘cheap finery’ and her ‘savage harsh voice’ amusing and strange. So it is unsurprising that Marthe no longer wanted “to see anyone anymore, not even her old friends”, as Bonnard apologetically explained in a letter to Berthe Signac, the painter Paul Signac’s wife, in 1932. In fact, after a lifetime of being drawn in the nude and having her naked body rendered in life-sized paintings for increasingly large audiences, such feelings seem understandable. They are certainly not a sure sign of pathological paranoia.” – Tate Man and Woman (L’Homme et la femme), 1900, depicts Bonnard with Marthe When I repeated those judgmental words about Marthe yesterday, I paused to think it was interesting that Pierre would draw her so frequently and with such tenderness. Surely a difficult woman would be someone to get away from, but Pierre seemed to find contentment being with her. I see his tender drawings as an extension of kindness, sitting with her while she performed her treatment for something that was difficult for her. How complicated, then, that the paintings were how he made his living, and she would then be on display. My apologies to my readers, and to Marthe. If you would like to learn more about Marthe and her relationship with Pierre Bonnard, I recommend this article in the Conversation.