He studied law and while he was slated to enter the Judicature, at the same time he studied painting at the Julian Academy where he became acquainted with the Nabis group. In 1888 he was accepted at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. There he met Vuillard and they became friends. The following year he sold a lithographed poster which garnered the admiration of Toulouse-Lautrec, who followed his example. He exhibited at the Salon des Independants and with his company of friends at the Nabis. In 1896 he had his first solo exhibition at the Durand-Ruel Galllery. He had regular exhibits at this same gallery from 1904 to 1933.
Starting at an early age he had retrospectives in his honor held in various cities throughout the world. He also worked as a book and magazine illustrator. For a brief period he became involved with sculpture.
Until the end of 1909, Bonnard was deeply influenced by Japanese painting. He adopted the Japanese manner of framing prints and their placard paints. During that same period he designed various objects, costumes and stage sets for the Theatre de l’ Oeuvre.
He travelled a great deal in France and also visited Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, England, Tunisia, Algeria and Italy. The impressions gained from these trips modified his painting and enlivened his colors. Gradually color became the primary element in his works. His subjects were taken from his everyday life and consisted by and large of nudes, still lifes and images from his home’s interior. In 1926 he lived for a time in Pittsburgh as a member of the committee for the Carnegie Prize which he himself won twice, n 1923 and 1930.
From 1930 on he used gouache to produce the intensity of color he desired.
In 1939 he settled in the village of Cannet on the Cote d’Azur and his painting became completely dominated by color. The transformation of light into color and the expression of the joy of everyday life are to be found in all his works.
Matisse admired his work and was his friend for nearly forty years. One of the most important colorists, he influenced Rothko and led him to abstraction and his work was always a point of reference for all subsequent French painters.