Getting off to a positive start with a realistic painting of a polished coffee server, the Royal Academy of Arts introduces the “very singular Vallotton” in the first major UK exhibition of the Swiss painter Félix Vallotton (1865-1925). Barely heard of on this side of the English Channel, Vallotton’s artwork can be compared to the likes of Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) and Édouard Vuillard (1868-1940), however, he is also known for his satirical woodcuts.
Félix Edouard Vallotton was born into a Swiss-Protestant family in Lausanne. His father was a pharmacist who later purchased a chocolate factory and his mother was the daughter of a furniture craftsman. As always, his parents had ambitions for Félix and his three siblings and he attended university, leaving in 1882 with a degree in classical studies. Whilst studying, he also attended drawing classes lead by the artist Jean-Samson Guignard and, due to his success on the course, his parents granted him permission to go to Paris to study art seriously.
At sixteen years old, Vallotton enrolled at the private art school Académie Julian where he studied under Jules Joseph Lefebvre (1836-1911) and Gustave Boulanger (1824-88). Lefebvre believed Vallotton had the potential to earn a living as a painter and in 1883 Vallotton won a place at the most influential art school in France, Ecole des Beaux-Arts, although he turned the offer down and remained at Académie Julian for another year.
The exhibition begins with a few examples of Vallotton’s earliest works. These reveal his talent as a realist painter and the influence of artists he studied at college, for example, Leonardo da Vinci(1452-1519), Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) and Francisco Goya (1746-1828). It is also interesting to note that despite the prevailing Impressionist movement in Paris at the time, Vallotton never engaged with the style.
In fact, in 1892, Vallotton became a member of the semi-covert group The Nabis, which took its name from the Hebrew word for prophet, thus referring to themselves as the “prophets of modern art”. Since he was not a French native, Vallotton was often called “The Foreign Nabi” by his peers who included, Bonnard, Vuillard, Charles Cottet (1863–1925) and Ker-Xavier Roussel (1867-1944) as seen in Vallotton’s painting The Five Painters (1902-3).
Despite short-lived, The Nabis wanted to transform the foundation of art. They believed that art was not a true depiction of nature but a combination of symbols and metaphors. The French painter Maurice Denis (1870-1943) wrote the group’s manifesto The Definition of Neo-traditionalism in which he stated “Remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a female nude or some sort of anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order… The profoundness of our emotions comes from the sufficiency of these lines and these colours to explain themselves…everything is contained in the beauty of the work.” The group, however, disbanded in the early 1900s.
Through his association with The Nabis, Vallotton discovered the art of woodcut printmaking. He began making woodcuts in 1891 and was particularly inspired by Japanese artists, such as Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), who were also an influence on many European artists at the time. The artworks are characterised by simple forms, flattened perspectives and decorative aesthetic.
Two of Vallotton’s paintings based on this Japanese style were exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants. In The Waltz (1893), two-dimensional characters skate over the glittering ice in the arms of their partners. Displayed next to this, both at the Salon des Indépendants and the Royal Academy exhibition was Bathing on a Summer Evening (1892-3). This was a more ambitious piece of work and is a complete contrast to Vallotton’s realist manner.
Vallotton combined inspiration from Japanese “ukiyo-e” prints with the themes of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings. Unfortunately, critics were unable to recognise this parody. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), on the other hand, was one of the few who appreciated the painting but worried that the police would take it down due to the negative reaction from the public.
Vallotton also began producing black and white prints based on the style of the Japanese artists he admired. Rather than using woodblocks, however, he opted for a technique called zincography, which requires a zinc plate coated in acid. The result is much more controlled than those produced with wooden blocks and the line work can be much more expressive.
One of Vallotton’s first series of wood prints (zinc prints) is called Paris Intense, which features unusual scenes of Paris life. Vallotton was anti-bourgeois, as many artists were at the time, and focused on people from all walks of life in his prints. In this particular series, he combined caricatures of Parisians from upper, middle and lower classes all experiencing the same event. For example, in a print titled L’Averse (The Shower), smartly dressed men and women fight with their black umbrellas whilst others are pulled along in horse-drawn carriages. A maid wearing a white apron can be seen running in the background with nothing to shelter her from the rain.
Vallotton’s prints found themselves published in the literary and artistic magazine La Revue Blanche, established by the Natason brothers: Alexandre, Alfred and Thadée. Vallotton’s portrait of the latter can be seen in the exhibition. He also painted one of the editors, Félix Fénéon (1861-1944). This portrait resembles the work of The Nabis with an unrealistic approach to painting likenesses.
La Revue Blanche published works by many intellectuals, including Marcel Proust (1871-1922), Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Erik Satie (1866-1925), and Vallotton was the chief illustrator. Vallotton proved to be a gifted graphic artist and numerous prints were featured in the magazine.
One of Vallotton’s greatest woodcut series to feature in La Revue Blanche was called Intimacies (1897-8), which features ten fly-on-the-wall scenes that satirise the sexual desires of the Parisian bourgeoisie. Married couples are seen arguing whilst in another frame an adulterous couple mockingly toast an absent spouse. Others are more ambiguous and could represent either married couples or those in an illicit relationship.
Vallotton used a few of these prints as bases for paintings. Take, for example, Five O’Clock (Cinq Heures, 1898), which was also the title of one of the prints in the Intimacies series. Replacing black and white with colour, Vallotton produced a distemper version of the scene in which a man and a woman embrace in a red armchair. The title is a phrase that was used ironically in France by businessmen who would leave work at that hour to visit their mistresses before returning home to their wives.
Other print series include Musical Instruments (1896-7), in which Vallotton created portraits of particular musicians, some of which have been identified and others who have not. The darkness of the rooms depicted adds an element of mystery to their identities. The use of black in these prints is strong, using white for only a few line details that frame the musician and instruments, which include a cello, violin, flute, piano, guitar and cornet.
The World’s Fair (1900), was the last series Vallotton created before he stopped working for La Revue Blanche. The World’s Fair was held in Paris during the first year of the 20th century. Vallotton’s prints record scenes of construction, fireworks, picnics and people shopping.
By the end of the 19th century, Vallotton decided to move away from print work, believing painting to be his vocation. This was partly due to his marriage to the widowed daughter of Alexandre Bernheim (1839-1915), the owner of a gallery and one of the most successful art dealers on the continent. Previously, Vallotton had been living in the Latin Quarter of Paris with his mistress Hélène Châtenay, however, he left her in 1899 to marry Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques, whose financial stability allowed Vallotton to concentrate on his paintings, which is generally a low paying, unstable career.
Gabrielle appears frequently in her husband’s paintings and often sat for portraits. Most of the time, however, she is captured in the middle of domestic tasks around the house. Vallotton was also the step-father of three children, who occasionally became the subjects of his paintings. One scene around a dining table reflects one of the children’s negative attitude to the new adult in their life.
Capturing Gabrielle at work around the house was more difficult than painting someone sitting still. As a result, Vallotton began using a Kodak camera to catch the scenes he wished to paint. In his studio, he would either recreate the photograph with paint or remove and add elements to the scene to create the image in his mind’s eye.
Vallotton’s paintings of Gabrielle moving around the house are usually full of clashing colours and patterns, which may or may not have been present in the real family home. When painting from a photograph, the image was black and white, therefore, colours could be left to the artist’s imagination. Vallotton also crowded the rooms with rugs, ornaments, furniture, curtains and patterned wallpaper.
These domestic scenes are not the typical images one might expect and are rather ambiguous in nature. In Interior with Woman in Red (1903), Vallotton shows several rooms of the house through a continuous row of opened doors. Gabrielle stands in the middle with her back to the viewer, clearly heading for the bedroom in the far room. Wearing her dressing gown, it is easy to assume she is going to get dressed; the sunlight from the hidden windows is suggesting it is morning. Other than this, little else can be ascertained from the painting. It is as though it has captured a stolen glimpse of a household that tells you almost nothing about its inhabitants.
Woman Searching Through a Cupboard (1901) is another of Vallotton’s domestic scenes. It is probably a painting of Gabrielle but the subject matter is an obscure choice for an artist. The figure is apparently unaware of the artist’s presence while she searches through the carefully folded linen. The only light source is a lamp, placed on the floor where the figure crouches down to look at something on the bottom shelf. Whatever this is has been hidden from view, leaving the purpose of the search a mystery to everyone. Presumably, Vallotton painted this from a photograph he took as he wandered through the house, therefore, there may not have been much thought about how the painting would be interpreted.
From 1904, Vallotton’s principal subject of painting became the female nude. He had worked a little on this theme before his marriage but had not focused seriously on the theme. Unlike other artists who painted from life, Vallotton produced a quick sketch of his models then completed the painting alone in his studio. This may account for the feeling of detachment these paintings evoke with very little or even no sexual emotion.
Some of the models are partially clothed, for instance, the woman in Nude Seen From Behind in an Interior (1902), whereas others are fully naked. One of Vallotton’s nude paintings is almost a response to Édouard Manet’s (1832-83) Olympia (1863), which depicts a white female lying on a bed being attended by a black maid. In Vallotton’s version La Blanche et la Noire (1913), the white woman lying on the bed is naked and the black woman is elegantly dressed and smokes a cigarette while she observes her dozing companion. It is not clear whether these two women are mistress and servant, friends, or even lovers.
Vallotton believed one of his greatest works to be Models Resting (1905), which he submitted to the Salon d’Automne. Vallotton is believed to have wept in front of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ (1780-1867) Turkish Bath (1862), which was the inspiration for this particular painting. Within the painting, he included two older works in the background: a portrait of his parents and a landscape, thus showing his development over the years.
Alongside his portraits of nudes, the exhibition showed examples of later works that focused on social scenes. Again, he attacked the bourgeoisie with imagery that suggested immoral behaviour, such as secret liaisons in theatre boxes. He also turned to New Testament stories, such as the story of Susanna who is the victim of lecherous old men. In Vallotton’s version titled Chaste Suzanne (1922), Susanna or Suzanne appears to be in control or even a seductress, dressed in a sequined hat and tempting a couple of balding men.
“War! The word is magnificent … The day I saw it appearing in big letters on the walls, I honestly believe I felt the strongest emotion of my life.”
In 1916, Vallotton briefly returned to printmaking as a response to the First World War. Although he had become a French citizen in 1900 after marrying Gabrielle, he was too old at almost 50 to enlist to fight. Nonetheless, he got to experience some of the action on a government-commissioned tour of the trenches in the Champagne region. This became the inspiration for his final venture in printmaking.
C’est la Guerre (This is War) was a portfolio of six prints showing the brutality of war. Similar to his earlier work, Vallotton included people of all social standings in these illustrations. Horrific scenes of barbed wire strewn with corpses, barricades and explosions lead to scenes of civilians, cowering in fear in their homes.
In the final decade of his career, Vallotton turned to landscape painting and gradually returned to realism. He called his approach to landscapes “paysage composé”, which means “composed landscape”.
“I dream of painting free from any literal respect for nature … I would like to be able to re-create landscapes with only the help of the emotion they have provoked in me …”
Instead of producing life-like landscapes, Vallotton simplified the compositions into shapes and colours, reminiscent of the flat Japanese-inspired paintings of his earlier years. The result is an almost abstract version of nature.
On the other hand, Vallotton’s still-lifes are extremely realistic. It is almost as though one could reach in and pick up one of the red peppers sitting on a white marble table. Their shiny skins and accurate shadows make them appear tangible. Similarly, his basket of apples is also life-like, although perhaps not as real as the peppers.
Unfortunately, Vallotton’s health deteriorated during his fifties. Due to his persistent health problems, Vallotton and Gabrielle spent each winter in the warmer climates of Cagnes-sur-Mer in Provence, and their summers in Honfleur, Normandy where he produced many of his landscapes. Despite persisting in his painting, Vallotton passed away on the day after his 60th birthday following cancer surgery.
Throughout his life, Vallotton produced over 1700 works of art. A year after his death, a retrospective exhibition was held at Salon des Indépendants and some of his paintings were also displayed at the Grand Palais along with the works of well-known artists, including Van Gogh, Modigliani and Toulouse-Lautrec.
Vallotton’s brother Paul was an art dealer and established the Galerie Paul Vallotton in Lausanne where he displayed a number of Félix’s paintings. Félix Vallotton was not the only artist in the family, his niece Annie Vallotton (1915-2013) went on to produce illustrations for the Good News Bible, thus becoming the best selling artist of all time when over 225 million copies were sold.
The Royal Academy of Arts has done an excellent job at introducing Félix Vallotton to a new audience and generation. Whilst none of the pieces are particularly famous, they are worthy of the attention this exhibition is affording them. Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet is open until 29th September 2019 and costs £16 for an adult ticket. Children can visit for free with a fee-paying adult. As always, Friends of the RA are entitled unlimited free entry.