A Peculiar Beauty: the paintings of Ker-Xavier Roussel 1

Ker-Xavier Roussel (1867–1944), Graniers Beach (1904), oil on panel, 41 x 62.9 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Other than Pierre Bonnard, the Nabis have become oddly neglected. Like many groups, even the Impressionists themselves, they didn’t last long as a movement, between about 1889-96. With their work now largely out of copyright, I have been able to show a great many paintings by Pierre Bonnard. Today and tomorrow it’s the turn of another of my favourite twentieth century painters, Ker-Xavier Roussel (1867–1944).

Roussel was born in Lorry-lès-Metz, Moselle, in the far east of France, near the city of Metz. Although the son of a doctor, in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, his family was forced to move to Paris when the whole of the area around Metz became first a battlefield, then occupied by the Prussians. At the age of fifteen he studied at the Lycée Condorcet in Paris, where he first made friends with Édouard Vuillard and Maurice Denis. In 1885, he started as a pupil in the studio of painter Diogène Maillart, and three years later enrolled in the École des Beaux-Arts.

He soon began frequenting the Académie Julian, where he was taught by Tony Robert-Fleury. Roussel, Vuillard, Maurice Denis and other students there formed Les Nabis, which soon included Pierre Bonnard as well. Roussel’s first major exhibition with the Nabis was in 1891.

Ker-Xavier Roussel (1867–1944), Conversation (1891-93), oil on canvas, 41 x 32 cm, Musée des Augustins de Toulouse, Toulouse, France. Image by Didier Descouens, via Wikimedia Commons.

Conversation from 1891-93 shows his full Nabis style, with muted colours, flattened perspective, and patterned textiles. This image shows the painting’s rich surface texture too – a feature which is often hard to see even when viewing such works in the flesh.

Ker-Xavier Roussel (1867–1944), The Stages of Life (1892-93), media and dimensions not known, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, IN. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1892-93, Roussel painted two different versions of The Stages of Life. That above is now in Indianopolis, whilst that below is in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, where it is known as The Seasons of Life. Although of similar composition, and more typical perhaps of the figurative paintings of Edvard Munch, or even Ferdinand Hodler, the Indianopolis version appears less finished, and the distinctions between the four women less clear.

In the Paris version, the woman at the left has grey hair, implying her advancing age, and the woman at the right looks more mature. The trees in the background are in their autumn foliage.

Ker-Xavier Roussel (1867–1944), The Seasons of Life (1892-95), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.
Ker-Xavier Roussel (1867–1944), Meeting of Women (c 1893), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

Roussel’s Meeting of Women from about 1893 continues the theme of womanhood, and is more overtly Nabis in style, and autumnal.

Together with the other Nabis, Roussel became involved with La Revue Blanche, an avant garde art magazine published by the Natanson brothers. He married Vuillard’s sister Marie. Roussel also joined with Bonnard, Vuillard and Paul Sérusier in decorating the Théâtre de l’Œuvre in Paris.

Ker-Xavier Roussel (1867–1944), Women and Children by a Village (Let the little children come to me) (c 1893-95), pastel on grey paper, 37 x 52 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Women and Children by a Village, also known by the Biblical quotation of Let the little children come to me, from about 1893-95 is one of his earlier works in pastel, which has been squared up as if being transferred to a large format, perhaps intended for a finished oil painting. A Christ-like figure sits at the left, as mothers queue with their children to meet him.

When Félix Vallotton and Aristide Maillol joined the Nabis in the 1890s, Roussel exhibited with them at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris, in Brussels, and the Bernheim Galleries. In 1899, he moved out of central Paris to live in l’Étang-la-Ville, not far from the palace at Versailles, where he remained until his death.

As with Pierre Bonnard, in the early years of the twentieth century, Roussel discovered the Midi, France’s Mediterranean coast, and was to return there to paint and socialise with other artists.

Ker-Xavier Roussel (1867–1944), Mythological Subject (c 1903), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Mythological Subject from about 1903 appears to show the Mediterranean coast, with significantly increased chroma. However the ‘mythological’ episode is more of a puzzle: at the left are two women, one of them nude. They are being assailed by a black goat. At the right a white goat is also stood on its hind legs while it confronts a nude man. Although this appears mythological in theme, I don’t recognise any well-known story, nor is any referenced in the painting’s title.

Ker-Xavier Roussel (1867–1944), Graniers Beach (1904), oil on panel, 41 x 62.9 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Graniers Beach is an unabashed landscape painting from 1904, showing what is now one of the more popular beaches in the resort of Saint-Tropez, in the Midi. Three people are taking the sun in this otherwise peaceful and deserted spot; two of them are almost completely undressed, the third squatting to read.

Ker-Xavier Roussel (1867–1944), Venus and Love at the Seaside (1908), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Image by Alexis Kauffmann, via Wikimedia Commons.

Roussel’s Venus and Love at the Seaside from 1908 shows a similar but not identical spot. It shows a classical mythical scene, of Venus and her son Cupid sitting together. Cupid is clutching a blackbird, which has presumably been shot with one of his arrows. Adding such a mythical scene to a landscape harks back to the dawn of French landscape painting with Nicolas Poussin.

Ker-Xavier Roussel (1867–1944), Faun and Nymph (c 1910), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Private collection. Image by Christelle Molinié, via Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, Roussel’s Faun and Nymph from about 1910 continues this theme, with a naked nymph asleep in the foreground, and a faun fast approaching from the right. The light and colours imply that this is again set in the Midi.