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Félix Valloton

Portraits of intimacy

The life I live is literally the opposite of the life I dreamed of. I love seclusion, silence, cultivated thinking and reasoned action – and I have to deal with machinations, foolish talk and vain affectation.

Painter and printmaker Félix Valloton is best known for his unique take on the society of late 19th and early 20th century Paris. A tumultuous time, not only in terms of aesthetic developments, but also in the bohemian social scene, and the political climate around the first World War. The artist had a distinct talent for observing the world around him and would approach his subjects with subtle wit and subversive satire.

Born in Switzerland in 1865, into a traditional Bourgeois and Protestant household, Vallotton showcased a talent in painting and drawing at a very early age. He soon began to attend the drawing classes of the painter Jean-Samson Guignard, that were usually attended by the most advanced students. His exceptional eye for detail drew him to realism as his preferred painting style. At just 16 years old, he decided to move to Paris, determined to position himself within the contemporary art scene of the French capital.

In January 1882, he settled in Saint-Germain-des-Prés and enrolled in Académie Julian, where he studied under Jules Joseph Lefebvre and Gustave Boulanger. He would spend many hours wandering the halls of the Louvre, admiring the works of Leonardo da Vinci, Holbein, Dürer, but also more modern painters, such as Goya, Manet, and especially Ingres, who would remain an inspirational figure throughout his career.

In 1883, Valloton beat the rigorous competition to enter the École des Beaux-Arts, but finally decided to decline the invitation to study there and remain with his friends at the Académie Julian, where he had more freedom in his artistic pursuits. He shift his focus to graphic arts—lithography and other methods of printmaking. Quickly, Valloton became a protégè of artist and printmaker Charles Maurin, who introduced him to the art of woodcut as well the bohemian social life of Montmartre—the cafés and cabarets such as Le Chat Noir, where he met Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Drawn in by the turbulent scene, Vallotton soon moved to live near Montparnasse. To make ends meet, he began selling prints of drawings he had made after Rembrandt and Jean-François Millet, worked as an art restorer, and contributed art reviews to the Gazette de Lausanne.

In 1885, he exhibited publicly for the first time at the Salon des Artistes Français. He showed the oil painting Portrait of Monsieur Ursenbach, an American mathematician and his neighbour. In 1887, at the Salon, Vallotton presented two portraits: the Portrait de Félix Jasinski and Les Parents de l'artiste, which showcased his extraordinary skill, but, by their extreme realism, departed from the traditions of portrait painting that were upheld at the time. They were heavily criticized by his professors and Vallotton increasingly began to work outside of the Académie.

At the Paris Universal Exposition of 1889, where he exhibited several paintings as the representative for Switzerland, the young artist had the opportunity to see works by Hokusai and other Japanese printmakers; an encounter that would greatly influence his later work. From then on, he worked in woodcut almost exclusively.

In 1892, he began to associate with a group of artists called the Nabis, which included Édouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard, Ker-Xavier Roussel, and Maurice Denis. Like these artists Valloton looked to the Symbolists and the Japanese woodcut tradition, practices that stressed the use of simplified abstract forms, strong lines, and bold colors. Of the paintings he completed in that period, Bathers on a Summer Evening (1892–93) attracted the most attention. That large-scale composition of women of various ages and in various stages of undress was exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in 1893, where it shocked the crowds with its eroticism.

Nonetheless, Vallotton would go on to depict simple yet strikingly intimate scenes of nudes, romantic and private moments between couples, as well as musicians playing their instruments. His woodcuts soon started to attract international attention and appreciation. His best-known series, titled Intimacies, consists of 10 woodcuts depicting private marital moments that allude to adultery and deceit. Throughout the 1890s, he also illustrated several books, such as Jules Renard’s The Mistress and Remy de Gourmont’s The Book of Masks.

During the 1890s, Vallotton had become increasingly politically engaged and he communicated his sentiments through his work, which was printed in Paris’s literary and political publications. By 1900, the Nabis had drifted apart. One source of the division was the Dreyfus affair, the case of a Jewish army officer falsely accused of aiding the Germans. The Nabis were divided, with Vallotton passionately defending Dreyfus. To express his political sentiments, he produced a series of satirical woodcuts on the affair, including The Age of the Newspaper, which were published on the first page of Le Cri de Paris on January 23, 1898, at the height of the affair.

In 1899 Valloton made a decision that would dramatically impact his career; he married Gabrielle Rodrigues-Hénriques, the widowed daughter of Alexandre Bernheim, one of the most successful art dealers in Europe and founder of the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune. This marriage not only gained him a wife, financial security, and entry to the French Bourgeoisie, but also three children from her previous marriage. They moved to a large apartment near the Gare Saint-Lazare train station and he gradually abandoned woodcuts as his main source of income. Instead, he established a solid relationship with the Bernheim gallery, which presented a special exhibition devoted to the Nabis, including ten of his works. After this, he decided to focus entirely on oil painting.

He created many nudes, as well as landscapes, still-life paintings, interiors, and portraits—rendered in his characteristically simplified yet realist manner that has been likened to that of Gustave Courbet and Ingres. Vallotton would also paint many portraits of members of the Paris cultural elite, as well as The Five Painters (1902–03)—a group portrait of Nabi artists Bonnard, Vuillard, Charles Cottet, Roussel, and Vallotton.

His oil paintings were generally applauded for their truthfulness and the artist’s technical abilities, but the uncompromising realism of his style was also frequently criticized. A critic wrote in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, for example, that Vallotton:

...paints like a policeman, like someone whose job it is to catch forms and colors. Everything creaks with an intolerable dryness ... the colors lack all joyfulness.

Today, the recognizable starkness of his work is seen as a predecessor of the New Objectivity, which flourished in Germany during the 1920s, and has a parallel in the work of Edward Hopper.

By 1907, Vallotton was also trying his hand at writing, creating a novel (La Vie meurtrière, published posthumously in 1930; “The Murderous Life”) and several unpublished plays over the course of several years.

Throughout the 1910s Vallotton exhibited his work regularly and, after nearly 15 years, returned to woodcut to produce the anti-war series C’est la guerre! (1915). After having been rejected when wanting to join the army, the artist became increasingly consumed with the ravages of World War I. In 1916, Vallotton applied and was accepted to be part of a group of artists that went to visit the front lines to witness the drama of war in person. Based on this experience he created several works, such as Ruins at Souain and Verdun (1917), an almost Futurist-inspired depiction of combat. He also published the essay “Art et Guerre,” (1917; “Art and War”), in which he described the challenges of conveying the realities of war through art.

After the end of the war, Vallotton concentrated more on still lifes, landscapes composed in the studio, and flamboyantly erotic nudes. Unfortunately, the appreciation for his art was waning at this point. He also suffered from persistent health problems and on the day after his 60th birthday he died of lung cancer. In 1885, the artist had begun to keep a notebook, his ‘Livre de Raison’, in which he listed all of his paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints. He kept the log his entire life and when he died, it listed one thousand seven hundred works.

Though, to this day, the artist remains difficult to categorize, his continued influence is undeniable. Vallotton's cool and detached observation of life, and the psychological disquiet of his subjects, has been linked to the paintings and prints of Edvard Munch, Edward Hopper and even René Magritte. Strong resonances can also be found in the cinematic vision of German Expressionist Fritz Lang, with his striking use of chiaroscuro shadows, as well as Alfred Hitchcock's, cool domestic interiors and foreboding spaces filled with sinister characters. While more recently, director Wes Anderson and his partner Juman Malouf have credited Vallotton as an inspiration for the flattened colour schemes of their highly idiosyncratic set designs. But above all, art critics, as well as historians, credit Vallotton with reviving the art of woodcut, which was later adopted by Expressionist artists such as Erich Heckel and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and subsequently became a pillar of modern art.


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Sources: Wikipedia, Brittanica, Royal Academy, Studio International, The Art Story, Astrofella