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July 8 Art Minute: Pierre Bonnard, The Abduction of Europa

Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo Art Museum, Toledo Museum
Pierre Bonnard (French, 1867-1947) The Abduction of Europa. Oil on canvas, 1919. Purchased with funds from the Libbey Endowment, Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey, 1930.215

Sumptuous, translucent colors and softly washed brushwork merge the mythological figures of this painting into a dreamlike harmony with nature, creating a sensuous effect. Though usually painting scenes of domestic life, Pierre Bonnard became increasingly intrigued with the imagery of pastoral myth during the first two decades of the 20th century. Here he depicts the myth of Greek god Zeus transforming himself into a magnificent white bull in order to abduct the princess Europa across the sea. 

Bonnard shows the moment in the story when Europa, charmed by the bull, climbs onto its back. One of her female companions seems equally charmed, while the other looks on with alarm. Apparently oblivious to the drama, a faun (part-goat forest spirit) plays a horn for a reclining figure. Bonnard does not focus on Europa’s struggle and distress as she is carried out to sea, as other artists had when depicting the myth. Instead, he shows the young woman and the bull in playful flirtation, adding to the impression of a timeless world of idle pleasure.

This work is currently on view in Gallery 35