This week’s Nabi painter is less well-known, but curiously appears to have been one of the ‘purest’ of the group: he is Paul-Elie Ranson (1861–1909). Although there are now plenty of images of his paintings and other art available, remarkably little biographical information is online. This is in part due to his early death: unlike most of the other Nabis who lived until well after the First World War, Ranson died when he was only 44.
He was born in Limoges, close to the very centre of France and far from the popular artistic haunts of the nineteenth century. He started his training in decorative arts, in his home city.
One of Ranson’s earliest paintings, made in 1885 before he had even left Limoges, I think, is his curious The Vanity of Mice. Influenced by Vanitas paintings and his interest in ‘witchcraft’, three black mice scurry over some books of arcane knowledge.
By 1886, Ranson had moved to Paris, where he became a student at the Académie Julian, alongside others who were about to become Nabis. His first contact with those who were to form the group was with Paul Sérusier, in 1888.
In about 1890, Ranson found himself the creative leader of the Nabis, and was responsible for introducing many of their quirks, including their private argot, and for assigning each of the members a name. He dubbed himself le nabi plus japonard que le nabi japonard – the Nabi who was more Japanese than the Japanese Nabi (who was Pierre Bonnard). Each Saturday afternoon, the members gathered in his apartment in Paris.
Although Ranson doesn’t appear to have painted many overtly religious images, he was certainly interested in religions and their philosophies. Christ and Buddha from about 1890 is one of his first paintings to use its iconography, with Christ on the cross and an interpreted image of a Buddha.
Witches around the Fire from 1891 is an example of a more recurrent theme in his paintings, in which he showed visions of witches’ ‘sabbaths’ with erotic undertones.
One motif which appears in several of Ranson’s earlier works is a nude bent forward to grasp her feet, as shown in his very Nabi Lustal from 1891.
An early preference for blue turned that into his Blue Bather, also from 1891.
Ranson’s Hippogriff from the same year shows a legendary chimeral creature which traditionally consisted of the upper parts of an eagle on a horse’s hind parts. It had been popularised in engravings by Gustave Doré, based on Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, which may have been Ranson’s point of reference.
In 1892, Ranson, with the help of Sérusier, Bonnard and Vuillard, designed sets for a theatrical production of Rimbaud’s Bateau Ivre.
Witch with a Black Cat from 1893 returns to his theme of witchcraft, this time without any hint of eroticism, and in a style becoming increasingly decorative.
Two Girls Next to the Head of Orpheus from about 1894 appears to refer to Gustave Moreau’s well-known painting Thracian Girl Carrying the Head of Orpheus on His Lyre (1865) which had been exhibited in the Salon of 1866.
Around 1895, Ranson painted series showing groups of women in various circumstances, including Four Women at a Fountain.
With his training in decorative arts, Ranson made designs for needlecraft and tapestry. Spring or Women Under Trees in Bloom is reminiscent of Maurice Denis’ earlier The Ladder in the Foliage (1892), but was made in 1895 in needlepoint. Its delicate textures reinforce its Nabi patterning.
Ranson, like the other Nabis, also made several vertical canvases to resemble Japanese screen paintings, as in his Woman Standing Beside Railing with Poodle from about 1895. This shows increasing influence of Art Nouveau.