Originally an art dealer in Brussels, Alexandre Bernheim moved to Paris in the late 1880s. He opened a gallery there, where his two sons, Joseph, known as Josse, and Gaston, soon came to work. Around 1900, the gallery specialised in Impressionist paintings and the works of later artists. Closely associated with the Nabi painters, in particular Pierre Bonnard and Félix Vallotton – who in fact married one of their sisters – the two brothers not only sold, but also bought and collected many Nabi works. Later, they commissioned several family portraits from them, including this astonishing Box from 1908.
In their box at the Paris Opera, a "modern" subject that was very popular in the late 19th century, is the figure of Gaston standing in the centre, with his sister in law Mathilde on his right, his wife Suzanne on his left, and, in the background, his older brother, Josse.
Although this was a commission, Bonnard did not just produce an academic exercise, but used it to develop his ideas on form and colour, to the great displeasure, it seemed, of Gaston Berheim who was not happy to see his face cut in half by the top edge of the painting. On either side of his figure, Bonnard develops two bands of contrasting colours. Although he unites the characters on the right in a pool of orange light, he confines the character on the right against a dark red background, isolating her completely. The absence of any eye contact between the protagonists, and the overwhelming impression of weariness, are reminiscent of Manet's Balcony.