“Felix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet”
“Felix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City presents some 80 works by the 19th century Swiss/French artist assembled from a number of public and private collections. The exhibition was earlier shown at the Royal Academy of Art in London.
Vallotton was born in 1865 in Lausanne, Switzerland into a well-to-do merchant family. After obtaining a degree in classics, the 16 year-old persuaded his father to let him go to Paris to study art. There, he enrolled in the Academie Julian and spent many hours in the Louvre studying the works of the European masters.
From this study, Vallotton developed a unique style. Inspired by the work of artists such as Ingres and Holbien and with his talent for keen observation, Vallotton's early works were quite realistic. Indeed, one of his teachers criticized them as too realistic. Nonetheless, he was able to exhibit his works including at the Paris Salon.
Vallotton presented several paintings at the Universal Exhibition of 1889. While there, he viewed an exhibition of Japanese wood prints. These works had a great influence on him and by 1891, he was making his own wood prints. His approach was to start with a very detailed drawing and then simplify it again and again. As a result, the final image was just the essential forms. He also adapted this style to his paintings.
Around the same time, Vallotton became with friends with a group of young artists known as the Nabis. Included in this group was Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard. Although Volloton's style remained different than that of his friends, he did exhibit with them and was part of the avant garde art scene in Paris.
In order to supplement his income, Vallotton wrote articles about art and made wood cut illustrations for various left-wing journals. Many of these illustrations satirized the bourgeois life-style of late 19th century Paris. The best known of these, “The Intimités”, a series of ten interiors published in 1898 and included in this exhibition, looked at the dynamics of romantic relations between men and women in modern life.
Vallotton's life changed in 1899 when he married Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques, the daughter of an important gallery owner. Financially-secure, Vallotton soon gave up making wood cut illustrations to concentrate on his painting. Frequently, his subjects became domestic scenes including Gabrielle and her children from a previous marriage. He also turned to landscape painting.
When World War I broke out, Vallotton, who had become a French citizen in 1900, volunteered for the army. Rejected as too old, Vallotton nonetheless decided to use his art to aid the French war effort. He made a new series of wood cut prints supporting the war. He was also selected by the French government to travel to the front, where he made paintings and drawings.
Vallotton's art is different than the other avant garder artists of his time. Perhaps the most apparent difference is in the use of color. In stark contrast to the abundance of bright colors used by Bonnard, Vallotton's palette is quite muted. Unlike the Impressionists whose work often reflects the joy of life, there is a certain coolness to the reality depicted by Vallotton. Unfortunately, it may have been a more accurate indicator of what was to come.
It has been said that Vallotton remained a traditionalist and did not participate in the artistic experimentation that led to modern art. Certainly, such suggestions seem justified when you compare Vallotton's realistic portrait of Gertrude Stein with Pablo Picasso's highly abstract portrait of her, both of which are included in the exhibition.
Still, such assertions do Vallotton an injustice. Take Vallotton's approach to landscape painting. Rather than try and record a particular scene, Vallotton would take elements of things that he had seen and then combine them into imaginary scenes. “I dream of a painting free from any literal respect for nature. I would like to be able to recreate landscapes only with the help of the emotion they have provoked in me.” Thus, his landscape paintings were not traditional depictions of reality but products of his imagination. Once the connection to a specific visual experience is severed, it is only a short step to abstraction.
An early self- portrait.
One of Vallatton's wood cut prints from the Intimites series.
Vallatton's "Sunset, Grey-Blue High Sea."
Art review - Metropolitan Museum of Art - “Felix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet”