The Nabis: 4 Divergence

Paul Ranson (1861–1909), Three Bathers among the Irises (1896), oil on canvas, 88.5 x 115 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

By 1895, the Nabis were at their peak as an art movement. Involved with the Natanson’s La Revue Blanche, and decorating the Théâtre de l’Œuvre in Paris, the group consisted of the following painters:

  • Pierre Bonnard, dubbed ‘very Japanese’,
  • Maurice Denis, with ‘beautiful icons’,
  • Meyer de Haan, ‘Dutch’,
  • Georges Lacombe, ‘sculptor’,
  • Paul Ranson, ‘more Japanese than the Japanese Nabi’,
  • József Rippl-Rónai, ‘Hungarian’,
  • Ker-Xavier Roussel,
  • Paul Sérusier, ‘with the shiny beard’,
  • Félix Vallotton, ‘foreign’,
  • Jan Verkade, ‘obeliscal’,
  • Édouard Vuillard, ‘Zouave’ (North African infantry),

and a handful of others, including writers and journalists. But, as with other movements in art, no sooner had the group come together than its members were starting to drift apart and move on.

Édouard Vuillard (1868–1940), Evening Effect (c 1895), pastel on paper, 31.6 x 30.8 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Édouard Vuillard’s pastel Evening Effect from about 1895 appears to have been influenced by photography, in the way that the figure in the foreground is blurred and ghostly, as they would be when photographed at night with a long exposure.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Views of Paris (c 1896), oil on board, 75.5 x 104.5 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Vuillard must also have been influenced by Pierre Bonnard’s contemporary Views of Paris. Here, Bonnard has turned his board into a Japanese screen, dividing it up into three vertical panels, to accommodate his aerial views of the bustling streets.

Paul Ranson (1861–1909), Three Bathers among the Irises (1896), oil on canvas, 88.5 x 115 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

Paul Ranson’s paintings were becoming increasingly pastoral and realist, as in his Three Bathers among the Irises from 1896, one of his several variations on this theme. The previously flattened perspective was regaining depth, and the need for decorative patterns had receded.

Georges Lacombe (1868–1916), Vorhor, The Green Wave (1896), egg tempera on canvas, 100 x 72 cm, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, IN. Image by Zambonia, via Wikimedia Commons.

When not making sculpture, Georges Lacombe also came under the influence of Japonisme. His egg tempera painting of Vorhor, The Green Wave from 1896 shows an Atlantic swell coming into the seacliffs of Vorhor near Camaret-sur-Mer in Brittany, with more than a touch of Hokusai’s Great Wave.

Édouard Vuillard (1868–1940), Vallotton at the Natansons (1897), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

A few of the group’s paintings recorded their social life. In Vuillard’s Vallotton at the Natansons, he shows Thadée Natanson’s wife Misia – a muse to Bonnard in particular – watching Félix Vallotton painting in 1897, at the Natanson’s home.

Maurice Denis (1870–1943), The Regatta in Perros-Guirec, View of the West Pier (1897), oil over wood panel on marouflé paperboard, dimensions not known, Musée départemental Maurice Denis, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France. Image © Marie-Lan Nguyen / CC-BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Maurice Denis visited the Channel coast of Brittany in 1897, where he painted The Regatta in Perros-Guirec, View of the West Pier, returning to the school of Gauguin but forsaking mute colours for those of higher chroma.

József Rippl-Rónai (1861–1927), Self-Portrait in a Brown Hat (1897), oil on panel, 64 x 88 cm, Magyar Nemzeti Galéria, Budapest, Hungary. Wikimedia Commons.

József Rippl-Rónai maintained a more individual style in any case, as shown in his Self-Portrait in a Brown Hat from 1897.

Not only are their styles divergent, but their motifs are now very different too. Whereas at their peak many of their figures were women, and their themes often centred on womanhood, they have now gone out onto the streets of Paris, and to the coast of Brittany, with their more diverse populations, or just the unceasing roar of the waves.

Despite their growing differentiation, they kept together, and in 1897 chose not to exhibit at the Salon des Independants in Paris, but to hang as a group at the Galerie Vollard instead.

The following year, as a precursor to their imminent separation, several of them travelled independently. Édouard Vuillard visited Venice and Florence, and in 1899 he went to London. Maurice Denis also travelled to Italy, but spent much of his time in Rome, where he studied the works of Raphael and Michelangelo in the Vatican in particular.

Their final exhibition as a group took place at the Galeries Bernheim in 1900, where works by Bonnard, Denis, Ibels (a print-maker and illustrator), Roussel, Sérusier, Vallotton and Vuillard went on display together.

In the next article, I will look at where each went in the early twentieth century.