The Intimate Artistic Brotherhood of the Nabis


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In 1889, a group of young avant-garde painters formed a brotherhood to revitalize French art. They called themselves the “Nabis”, derived from the Hebrew word for prophets. They met while they were students at the Académie Julian, an art school in Paris, where they grew angry at the traditional education of the time. Instead, they were inspired by Paul Gauguin’s bold use of color and symbolism that went beyond the lessons of Impressionism.

On this basis, the Nabis created a very personal art. There was no prescribed style: each artist pursued their own vision, but inspiration and encouragement flowed freely among the artists. Seen together, they formed a cohesive expression marked by bright, intense hues and small, penetrating scenes from everyday life.

The Portland Art Museum Private Lives: Home and Family in the Art of the Nabis, 1889-1900 exhibition, on display until January 23, 2022, explores the intimate interiors, gardens and family life of four of the artists in the collective. : Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis and Félix Vallotton. These artists and friends focused on what Bonnard called “modest acts of life” – small everyday moments that can be rich in meaning, memory and emotion.

Their shared interests – and, in the case of Bonnard, Denis and Vuillard, a shared studio space – brought these men together to explore similar themes of family and the pleasures and complications of family and romantic relationships.

Félix Vallotton was inspired by the precision and beauty of Japanese woodcuts, which testified to the meticulous nature of the Swiss-born artist, as evidenced by his early hyperrealistic portraits and the detailed journals he kept. throughout his life.

Once connected to the Nabis, Vallotton’s paintings became more abstract and rich in color, allowing the sharper elements to tell a more detailed story. The lie, featured in PAM’s Private Lives, for example, shows a couple in what appears to be a romantic embrace, but the expression on the man’s face is ambiguous: does it register the desire, the pain or disgust? The title,

too, suggests it’s not an idyllic romance, but Vallotton offers little clue to the drama that is unfolding. It’s a devastating painting, despite its modest size: barely 10 by 13 inches.

Pierre Bonnard was also stimulated by the work of Japanese engravers, which earned him the nickname “very Japanese Nabi”. He incorporated flattened shapes, unusual perspective and rhythmic patterns to evoke emotion in the viewer. Calm by nature, he nevertheless overcame family objections to pursue a life as a painter; his father insisted that he also get a law degree, but ultimately accepted Bonnard’s choice.

A touch of melancholy polishes the edges of her first masterpiece, Women with a Dog, a striking representation of her sister Andrée, her cousin Berthe and the Ravageau family dog. Bonnard was apparently in love with Berthe, even proposing marriage, but she refused him. The physical proximity of the three main characters suggests their kinship, while the garden decor evokes the Bonnard family home in rural France where they met every summer.

Women were at the heart of much of Édouard Vuillard’s work and life. He lived with his mother until her death, when the artist was in his sixties, and he said “Mother is my muse”. She ran a dress and corset making business from their shared apartment, and Vuillard was very attentive to the patterns, fabrics and other textiles she made for her craft. The richness of colors and textures mark her work, as in Woman in a Striped Dress, one of the highlights of the exhibition. Vuillard’s flickering brush suggests the glow of gaslight in this cozy interior, bathed in shades of red and white.

Maurice Denis was the theorist of the Nabi group. In an unpublished essay in the journal Art et Critique, he insists on the fact that “the depth of our emotions comes from the sufficiency of these lines and these colors to be explained. Everything is contained in the beauty of the work. In other words, color and line could do more than describe shapes – they could evoke emotions, suggest feelings, and create a symbolic inner world.

This modernist approach is evident in Denis’s painting of this period. Often using one of his nine children, or his wife, Marthe Meurier, as models, Denis was inspired by simple domestic scenes like Washing The Baby. The sweet spot on display perfectly evokes the deep bond between mother and child, while also speaking of the joy of discovery as the baby explores her toes. The ordinary subject is animated by the undulating forms of Marthe’s dress. Plus, the sophisticated composition echoes the balance and dexterity needed for this common chore.

It is ironic that these young artists, who sought to radically transform the art world, chose such modest subjects for their work. Vuillard once remarked that only people, places and objects closest to him could inspire artistic inspiration. Focusing on intimate interiors, close family and friends, and even pets, these artists have created discreetly radical art that draws viewers, suggests unspoken narrative, and dazzles the eye.

Private Lives: Home and Family in the Art of the Nabis, 1889-1900 is on view at the Portland Art Museum from October 23, 2021 to January 23, 2022. Find out more and plan your visit.

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