Vallotton’s Demons

Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet

an exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, June 30–September 29, 2019; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, October 29, 2019–January 26, 2020
Catalog of the exhibition by Dita Amory, Ann Dumas, Patrick McGuinness, Belinda Thomson, Philippe Büttner, Katia Poletti, and Christian Rümelin
London: Royal Academy of Arts, 182 pp., $45.00 (distributed in the US by Artbook/D.A.P.)
Dinner by Lamplight by Félix Vallotton
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Félix Vallotton: Dinner by Lamplight, 22 1/2 x 35 1/4 inches, 1899

Félix Vallotton was talked about as a highly individual, even anomalous, figure already in the 1890s, when he was in his late twenties and early thirties—and when his work was actually most aligned with that of his contemporaries—and the sense that he is an unclassifiable artist has remained to this day. He is probably best known for being part of a group of artists that included Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard and who called themselves (not with great seriousness) Nabis, which is Hebrew for prophets. If they were prophesying anything in their scenes of Parisian street life and of the living rooms and dining rooms of their families and friends, it was a new degree of accuracy about the way we see light and atmosphere. Vuillard and Bonnard created worlds in which the figure, color in its own right, and the textures of the foreground and the background of a scene became almost indistinguishable from one another. Without intending it, they were leading the way to a purely abstract art.

Vallotton (1865–1925), who is the subject of a small retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum, his first ever in New York, had no desire to break down forms in the manner of his fellow artists. He had intrepidly set out from his native Switzerland for Paris to become a painter when he was all of sixteen; but at the same time he was conservative as a person and as an artist. His god was Ingres. He believed that every form needed to be immaculately delineated. Yet in the 1890s, in his woodcut prints and his paintings, he showed street life and interior scenes in ways that complemented the pictures of his fellow Nabis.

His pictures could have a wry, satirical, and even melodramatic note that was foreign to the work of his French colleagues and yet added a kind of seasoning to it. He might almost have been saying, “There is an underside to the cozy realms created by my friends.” His taste for the tempo of contemporary life, however, began to dissipate after 1900 or so (which may have been true also for Vuillard and Bonnard). Vallotton largely went back to being a more traditional painter of formal portraits, landscapes, still lifes, and the female nude—though one whose pictures of any kind are marked by paint surfaces of a certain refinement and sensitivity.

Unfortunately, the Met’s show does not make us feel that Vallotton has been unjustly pushed to the side of art history. Although there are a number of engaging works on view—Dinner by Lamplight (1899) is a haunting and disturbing painting of a family gathering that practically justifies the show on its own—he comes across as an elusive and even confounding figure. The thinness of…

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