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 the exhibition, however, isn’t entirely attributable to him. His work from the 1890s—both his woodcut prints, which have always been his best-known pictures, and his paintings—properly make up the core of the show; but for an exhibition composed of some forty paintings there are too many bland, second-level examples among them. The catalog presents, moreover, ten paintings that were part of the exhibition when it was first shown last year at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, and many of those pictures—they include images of people dancing, of a writer working at a desk, and of a person looking for something in a linen closet—would have added substance to the group at the Met.
It is unfortunate as well that there are none of Vallotton’s lovely small paintings of aspects of Paris life, particularly along the Seine, at different times of day. A number of them were part of the artist’s far larger and more comprehensive retrospective held at the Yale University Art Gallery in 1991, and they show how Vallotton, for all his devotion to Ingres, was often influenced, in the occasional squatness and roundedness of his figures and the fairy-tale aura of his scenes, by Henri Rousseau. As it stands, the few works in the current exhibition from those years after Vallotton left the orbit of Vuillard and Bonnard don’t give much to dwell on. Viewers might, though, discern from the handful of landscapes on display that Vallotton never fully set aside his feeling for color and design.
At their best, there is an appealing toylike quality—a sense that people can be seen as mechanical, wound-up forces—to Vallotton’s prints and paintings. In the woodcuts he made in Paris in the 1890s, which gave him an international renown at the time, part of what charms us is the blocky and almost Lego-like appearance of his characters and settings. In these small black-and-white prints, people scurry through the streets, dodge cops, and run for cover from anarchist bomb threats or rain. They crowd department stores during a sale, dance on stage in burlesque routines, and, in a small masterpiece entitled Fireworks, are out at night watching the show, their faces looking upward like so many lightcatching bubbles in a dark pool.
If at first there seems something crude and unfinished about Vallotton’s woodcuts, it partly may be due to the way that the eyes of his figures are rarely made up of more than a dot, an empty little circle, or a short line. But these details turn out to be an aspect of why the Swiss artist’s prints have dated relatively little. With their abrupt small faces, the people in his woodcuts are practically of a piece with the figures in the work of some graphic novelists today.
In Vallotton’s paintings of the 1890s we also look at somewhat doll-like figures, though now in scenes made up of eye-catchingly decorative or theatrically shadowy tones. A number of the artist’s paintings of the time seem to be showing liaisons, but what is alive may be less the possibly illicit doings than the comically intrusive and totally generic club chairs, sofas, doors, and bookcases, and, too, the way they appear in candy-box colors, painted so that they give off an enamel-like gleam. Color and an unexpected composition mark, for example, a strong small picture in the Met’s show from 1899 called The Ball, which presents, from above, a little girl running for an orange ball. We know we are looking at a person, but what we see of her at first is hardly more than a yellow circle (her straw hat) and a white shape (her frock).
Vallotton is not, it should be said, primarily known for his humor, lively color, or high spirits. Saying what he stands for, though, has never been easy. The current exhibition was entitled “Félix Vallotton” when it was at the Royal Academy. The Met has added a subtitle—“Painter of Disquiet”—about which one can have mixed feelings. Stamping an artist with a word, especially an artist as little known as Vallotton, makes viewers almost involuntarily believe that the named spirit is what they will find as they look. Yet the subtitle makes sense. Although aspects of the artist’s work, from the 1890s especially, are witty and even lovable, there are facets of it and of Vallotton’s art in general that confuse us about his meanings and can be off-puttingly mordant, even strange.
His painting The Lie (1897), for example, which is in the exhibition, shows a man and a woman in a kind of soap-opera embrace. We see his slightly smiling face and closed eyes, while most of her face is blocked. In the collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art, the picture is a stylishly compressed venture in predominantly red, yellow, and black, and it is surely the most entertainingly satirical and formally adventurous painting by the artist in an American museum. The title, however, holds us up. It is like a little drop of poison in the scene. Who is lying? Are they both faking?
Some of the artist’s woodcuts of Parisians in interiors have a queasy-making edge as well. This isn’t true of such well-known and elegant examples as the one in which a nude woman lazes about with a cat, or the series of people playing musical instruments. But a degree of uncertainty is there in a group of images called Intimacies (1897–1898), in which his figures embrace, make love in bed, or find themselves at different ends of a sofa, caught in an emotional impasse. What gives the scenes their life is Vallotton’s ingenuity in creating believable, three-dimensional beings and objects out of only flat, pure white and flat, pure black. In The Triumph, for instance, almost the whole lower half of the image is black, yet the bits of white planted here and there make us realize that a woman is on a couch and a man is at a desk, his elbows resting on books.
What, though, is the “triumph”? It would appear that the woman, who is quite calm and self-possessed, has scored one on the man, who is deflated. And while on a first or second viewing one might not see Intimacies as being about the battle of the sexes, with men on the losing end, the theme is undeniably there, and it makes the pictures slightly illustrational.
But then to follow Vallotton’s notions about women is to be taken to a disorienting and alienating place. He was long drawn to the subject of the female nude, and after the turn of the century it became probably his foremost theme. The exhibition gives us only a slight sense of this. At the artist’s big show at Yale, though, there were a few more of these paintings—his largest works by far, some are six or seven feet on a side—and they cast a pall over his lively and intimately sized work of the 1890s.
The pictures aren’t erotic. In their neutral lighting and the way Vallotton often gives flesh the tone of a lusterless, grayish marble, they are simply glum. We are not at all sure what he was thinking. Did he believe he was celebrating women’s bodies? And how does this possibility square with his pictures (which can be found reproduced in the Met and Yale catalogs and elsewhere) that touch on allegory and mythology—works that show, say, a satyr gripping a nude woman in his arms as he races across a landscape? What are we to make of a large painting called Hatred (1908), which presents a nude man and a nude woman, their arms up before their chests, tensely coming before each other on a bare stage? At least as it is seen in a reproduction in the Met’s catalog, this picture is repellent on every level.
Penetrating Vallotton’s thinking is not easy, especially when we consider what the sense of violence and strife found in paintings such as Hatred and in his woodcuts, too—for example, in the frightening Murder, showing a man lunging with a knife to stab someone in bed, or The Alarm, which presents a vile image of swans attacking a bathing woman. A prolific painter, Vallotton managed as well to write three novels, eight plays, and a large amount of art criticism. He also kept a journal. Little of this appears to have been translated into English (and almost nothing besides the criticism was published in his lifetime). But Sasha Newman, in the catalog of the Yale show, writes that Vallotton’s fiction takes us to the same conflicted and unhappy place as do Hatred and Murder. She describes one of his novels, La Vie meurtrière (The Murderous Life), as being about a man who is convinced he is responsible for three deaths, although they were all accidents.
The sense of Vallotton as a person preyed on by internal demons might almost be the larger point of Vuillard’s portrait of his friend (and sometime confidant). Félix Vallotton in His Studio is one of Vuillard’s rare portraits that has a psychological sense of a sitter (and is one of his more memorable works). Seen here in a kind of blue workman’s outfit and wearing red shoes, and perched on a small table in the corner of a room, Vallotton appears almost a forlorn, perhaps sulking, boy. It is hard to say what his scrunched face expresses, but he seems frustrated and vexed.
By the time Vuillard’s painting was done, in 1900, the world of the Nabis—and of the influential and stylish publication called La Revue blanche that most of them contributed to—had begun to crumble. Soon the marriage of its magnetic chief proprietors and editors, Thadée and Misia Natanson, both of whom were painted by Vallotton and who had made him an important member of their wider family of writers, musicians, and artists, would collapse. Vallotton himself had helped in this dissolution by leaving the working-class woman he had been with for many years and marrying, in 1899, a wealthy widow with three children named Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques.
Gabrielle was the daughter of Alexandre Bernheim and the sister of Josse and Gaston Bernheim-Jeune, who together ran, in their name, one of the most prestigious art galleries in Paris. Gabrielle and Félix’s marriage, in addition to altering entirely the way the artist lived, gave him the very welcome backing of his new family’s gallery. His move seems to have taken most of his friends by surprise, and commentators over the years have wondered about his motives. Far more than Vuillard or Bonnard, he had always been clear about his need to succeed financially as an artist.
Vallotton would go on to do portraits of Gabrielle and interior scenes in which she appears, but these pictures, some of which are in the show, lack any real tension. In Dinner by Lamplight, however, done not long after his marriage, he created a powerful work that not only feels as if it were an accurate account of his new circumstances but seems to contain much of the painful, comic, angry, and lonely emotional life that one feels he inwardly led. The painting presents a dark, nighttime space that is illuminated solely by a strong white light streaming down from the lamp overhead. Underneath it, four people sit at a little circular table, laid with a red-and-white tablecloth. Moving counterclockwise, we see a woman who might be a wife or mother (or Gabrielle), a little girl whose staring eyes make her slightly demonic, and a thin, youngish man who has his hand up to his mouth and appears to be jamming a roll into it.
The fourth person is directly before us, seen only from his back and flat as a silhouette. He seems to have emanated from the dense black that entirely surrounds the bright table, and even though we see nothing of his face, he is our protagonist. We sense his awareness of the scene, though to the work’s benefit we can’t pinpoint what that is. His flat, insidious presence is like a barrier keeping us from entering the painting, but his blankness is also an invitation for the viewer to step in and be a part of it.
The subject of a small, mostly family gathering at lunch or dinner was not in itself new to the Nabi artists. Vuillard had been making first-rate pictures with this setting on and off through the 1890s, and Bonnard in at least one picture had emphasized the importance of the lamp at the dining table. With a belief in Ibsen and contemporary theater ingrained in the spirit of La Revue Blanche—the Natansons at one point made a pilgrimage to Oslo to meet the great playwright—Vuillard had occasionally made paintings that suggested moments in a play when characters find themselves cut off from one another. He had even, in A Family Evening (1895), placed a darkened and brooding figure at the bottom center of his image.
But Vallotton in Dinner by Lamplight is more purely visual than literary in his approach. He doesn’t give us, as Vuillard did, a figure who appears to be lost in his thoughts. Vallotton’s picture is stark and ominous—it is like a glimpse of film noir forty years before its time—and yet it imparts a more complex sense of an intimate gathering than does a work by Vuillard or Bonnard. We feel, for instance, that Vallotton’s silhouette figure is intruding on the other members of the scene. Yet our blank silhouette also suggests the situation—almost the plight—of someone who, while seeing himself as an observer of others, is also a person who for whatever reason cannot be fully himself when others are there. The picture is in part about how we at times feel ourselves invisible and impalpable.
All of this can be perceived without a viewer needing to know anything about Vallotton’s biography. But being aware of the artist’s background enables us to savor more fully his rashness here. Essentially, he has wed the color and heft of a painting to the nervier spirit of his woodcuts, in which he used sweeping areas of black and populated his scenes with fidgety, antic characters, like the wonderful Dickensian scarecrow here who is holding the bread to his face.
One leaves Dinner by Lamplight wishing that Vallotton had continued to blend his painting with aspects of his thinking as a graphic artist. He did so in a mild and indirect way, at least, in the landscapes and still lifes (as opposed to his nudes) that he went on to make in his later years. As examples at the Met indicate, his feeling for a taut design was particularly evident when he showed the sun or the moon over water. Watery reflections allowed him to create images in which the sun or the moon could appear in different places in the same scene, and other elements—whether light spots on waves, trees on the shore, or patterns in the water current—could have their own separate presences and colors, each balanced against the next. What are not in any of his later pictures, of course, are the topics that the younger Vallotton sometimes handled coarsely, it is true, but at other times brought off with a sure touch: the commotions, jokes, deceptions, acts of anger, and small mysteries of everyday life.