The Metropolitan Museum of Art © Shutterstock

Encounter with Félix Vallotton, Painter of Disquiet, in New York
Painter Félix Vallotton influenced the European art community in the late 19th century and even the modern film world. Fast forward 100 years, his artworks are in bloom again in New York.
Beginning at Académie Julian
Felix Vallotton has led “Les Nabis,” a group of Paris-based artists who actively transitioned away from French impressionism of the 19th century. Born in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1865, Vallotton remained a crucial member of the Nabis until his death in Paris, France, in 1925. His major works include portraits and landscapes, but he showed an exceptional talent in woodcuts, as well. After receiving a degree in classical studies in a college in his hometown in 1982, he left for the Académie Julian to study art. Founded in the 1860s by Rodolphe Julian, the Académie Julian was the most famous private art school in Paris, thanks to the Nabis. Along with Vallotton, the core group of the Nabis included Paul Sérusier who trained under Gustave Boulanger and Jules Lefebvre, Henri-Gabriel Ibels, Paul Ranson, Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Édouard Vuillard, and Ker-Xavier Roussel. Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne inspired the Nabis, meaning prophet in Hebrew. Such a name conveys the idea that their art serves a purpose similar to that of a religion. It is ironic that, while most members of the Nabis were tired of impressionism and trying to move away from it, they had studied art at the Académie Julian. The school was known for its academic and strict traditions. But it was also the center of the avant-garde movement. Vallotton was no exception.

Misia at Her Dressing Table (Misia à sa coiffeuse), 1898 Gouache on cardboard, 36×29cm (Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

Overcoming Impressionism
The period between the late 1800s and the early 1900s was when the Nabis aggressively sought their way into the art community still dominated by the impressionists such as Claude Monet and Édouard Manet. The two artists painted realistic scenes of life and focused on the varied use of colors to express the play of light.
The Nabis actively wanted to overcome impressionism. They agreed with Paul Gauguin’s belief that an artist does not need to recreate the original colors of a subject. Like mysticism and symbolism, they pursued the freedom of expression within a wider boundary. They put an emphasis on anti-realistic, yet decorative elements in their paintings, and Vallotton also relied on such methods.
Vallotton focused on the clear delineation of a subject and followed a strict format. This tendency led him to use sensuous, unrealistic colors for a more mystical, symbolic painting. He also found traditional Japanese woodblock prints “ukiyo-e” interesting. By emphasizing the flat areas and hard edges of the woodcut, he would get a simplified image from his painting and adapt it for printing. In other words, Vallotton no longer cared about how his paintings were drawn. Rather, he concentrated on the message of his works, including his emotions or the way those were evoked.

The Lie (Le Mensonge), 1897 Oil on artist’s board, 24×33.3cm, (The Baltimore Museum of Art. The Cone Collection, formed by Dr Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA) © Mitro Hood

Various Occupations of Vallotton
Other than being a painter, Vallotton also worked as a printmaker, newspaper contributor, illustrator, and novelist, and once even ran a theater. In particular, his involvement with , a French art and literary magazine published between 1889 and 1903, strengthened his relationship with the members of the Nabis. From then on, he broke away from formatted portraits or still lifes and started dealing with scenes from daily life that are decorative and sensuous. His representative work titled “Bathing on a Summer Evening (Le Bain au soir d’été)”(1892-1893, oil on canvas, 97x131cm) depicts naked or semi-naked people gathered to take a bath. For a spectator, the painting feels flat despite the fact the scene isn’t. He actually intended to minimize perspective to stress the flat surface. The diagonal lines on the upper part of the painting symbolize the blaring sun of summer. The stacks of bricks in the center seem to delineate the bath. The title clearly says it’s a bathing scene, but there is no hint about the exact venue. Compared to his early creations such as “Self-portrait at 20 years old (Autoportrait à l’âge de vingt ans)”(1885, oil on canvas, 70x55.2cm), his later works tend to display such over-simplification of the real world.

Gertrude Stein, 1907 Oil on canvas, 100.3×81.3cm (The Baltimore Museum of Art. The Cone Collection, formed by Dr Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland) © Mitro Hood


Street Scene in Paris (Scène de rue à Paris), 1895 Gouache and oil on cardboard, 35.9×29.5cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975)

Artist of Past Affecting Modern Artists
In the late 1890s, Vallotton made various woodcuts. His printings using an extreme expressive technique convey emotions floating between the artist and the subjects more fully. “Intimacies V: Money (Intimités V: L'Argent)”(1897~1898, woodcut, 25x32.3cm) is a wood printing, half of which is covered in black shadow. This work uses the dark mass created by the subjects’ bodies and natural light in the depicted scene to maximize the contrast between the man’s desperate body language and the woman’s evasive look, both of which point at their inappropriate relationship. The subjects’ lingering feelings and hesitation are symbolized in the oversized shadow taking up more than half of the surface. Vallotton, through these techniques, became known as a narrative storyteller. Quite a few artists were affected by him in the 20th century. Especially among filmmakers, Alfred Hitchcock adopted Vallotton’s voyeuristic perspective on forbidden behaviors expressed through the extreme contrast between light and dark. Wes Anderson was inspired by Vallotton to create unique color schemes for stage settings. Among painters, Edward Hopper’s works portraying the theme of loneliness and solitude in a realistic way show traces of Vallottonian style. Perhaps it was in due course that Vallotton parted with the Nabis in his later days as he continuously tried to create his own style and pioneer a new path.

© Shutterstock

Reason to Meet Vallotton in NYC
From October through January 2020, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, New York, holds an exhibition entitled “Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet”. It’s a collaboration between the Met, the Royal Academy of Arts, and Félix Vallotton Foundation, and has been held from June through September at the Royal Academy’s Jillian and Arthur M. Sackler Wing of Galleries. For the Met exhibition, Galleries 955 and 960-962 are offering the venue. At Gallery 960, originally designated for printings from the Renaissance era, woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer are displayed in tandem with the works by Vallotton. At Galleries 961 and 962, European paintings from the 19th-20th centuries are featured along the works by Vallotton in an airy passageway full of natural light. For the first time ever, the exhibition offers a dual display of the portraits of Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso and Vallotton. Despite his legacy in the history of art, Felix Vallotton is called “the painter of disquiet” due to his low popularity. The Met exhibition aims to shed a new light on his life and career for the public to understand his one-of-a-kind spirit and strong will and even gain a new momentum to refresh our daily life.

Duration Oct. 29, 2019~Jan. 26, 2020
Venue The Metropolitan Museum of Arts, New York
Address 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10028, USA
Where to Stay in New York: LOTTE NEW YORK PALACE

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Address 455 Madison Avenue at 50th Street, New York, NY, USA
Phone +1-800-804-7035
November 2019 Editor:Jung Jaewook
Writer:Jang Jintaeg
Cooperation: Metropolitan Museum of Art

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