The Nabis: 5 Destinations – Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis, Sérusier

Édouard Vuillard (1868–1940), Madame Vuillard Sewing (1920), oil on cardboard, 33.7 x 35.8 cm, National Museum of Western Art 国立西洋美術館 (Kokuritsu seiyō bijutsukan), Tokyo, Japan. Wikimedia Commons.

Having peaked as an art movement by 1895, the Nabis steadily moved apart, and by about 1906 there was little to show, it seems, for their work together apart from friendships which lasted unto death. In this article and next week’s, I’m going to show carefully selected paintings from each of the Nabis whose careers extended into the twentieth century, to see what remained of their Nabism in the years just before the First World War, and even later.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), The Croquet Game (1892), oil on canvas, 130 x 162.5 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris). The Athenaeum.

By far the best-known, most successful, and longest-lived of the Nabis was Pierre Bonnard, whose paintings in the early 1890s were often not in particularly Nabi style. The Croquet Game from 1892 is one of those which is unmistakably Nabi, though.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Le Bol de lait (The Bowl of Milk) (1919), oil on canvas, 116.2 x 121 cm, The Tate Gallery (Bequeathed by Edward Le Bas 1967), London. Photographic Rights © Tate 2018, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported),

Although much of his work from the end of the nineteenth century onwards showed precious little Nabism, as it grew more intense in chroma and he adopted themes such as Marthe in the bath and French windows, every so often he did paint works, like The Bowl of Milk, which referred back to his earlier style – in this case, over twenty years after the group had dissolved.

Like many of Bonnard’s paintings this looks informal if not spontaneous, but it is actually the result of quite deliberate compositional work, and attention to details such as the form of the pillars on the balcony outside. In its informality is formality, in the model’s pose, the layout of the table settings, and the echoing verticals in the window and wallpaper.

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Nude in Bathtub (c 1938-41), oil on canvas, 121.9 x 151.1 cm, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, PA. The Athenaeum.

Over forty years after Nabism, some of Bonnard’s paintings, like Nude in Bathtub from about 1938-41, still hark back to some of its traits. His colours are now brilliant and visionary. The form of the bath adopts itself to that of Marthe within, curving around her legs in its asymmetry. The shimmering patterns of the floor and the curtain are quite independent of their orientation, a feature of Nabi decorative patterning.

Édouard Vuillard (1868–1940), Public Gardens (1894), oil on canvas, 213 x 308 cm, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Édouard Vuillard maintained Nabi traits in his work long after his masterpiece of Public Gardens from 1894.

Édouard Vuillard (1868–1940), At The Pavillons in Cricqueboeuf. In Front of the House (1911), distemper on canvas, 212 x 79.8 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Here is a Japoniste vertical panel with common roots, At The Pavillons in Cricqueboeuf. In Front of the House, from 1911. He painted this using glue distemper, one of the traditional media from the late Middle Ages which was revived by the Nabis. Although this view has depth, it also retains the patterning of clothing and objects such as the deckchair and the foliage, no longer as prominent as it had been twenty years before.

Édouard Vuillard (1868–1940), Madame Vuillard Sewing (1920), oil on cardboard, 33.7 x 35.8 cm, National Museum of Western Art 国立西洋美術館 (Kokuritsu seiyō bijutsukan), Tokyo, Japan. Wikimedia Commons.

As late as 1920, when Vuillard painted his mother Madame Vuillard Sewing, he still occasionally returned to a more Nabi style. By this time, Madame Vuillard must have been in her early seventies.

Maurice Denis (1870–1943), September Evening (Women Sitting on the Terrace) (1891), media and dimensions not known, Musée d’Orsay, Paris. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

Maurice Denis’ mature Nabi paintings like September Evening or Women Sitting on the Terrace (1891) are good examples of the collective style. The forms of the figures are flattened, and each wears a patterned dress. There is obvious influence of Japonisme, and muted colours throughout.

Maurice Denis (1870–1943), Female Bathers at Perros-Guirec (c 1912), oil on canvas, 98 x 122 cm, Petit Palais, Paris. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

Although he became almost Fauvist in his use of high chroma, when Denis turned to paint some classical nudes in mythological and coastal scenes, such as Female Bathers at Perros-Guirec (c 1912), his work retain some of the Nabi look.

Maurice Denis (1870–1943), Self-Portrait in Front of the Priory (1921), media and dimensions not known, Musée départemental Maurice Denis, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France. Wikimedia Commons.

His Self-Portrait in Front of the Priory from 1921 is even more strongly reminiscent of his Nabi work, with more muted colours and some continued flattening of perspective.

The last of these four artists, Paul Sérusier, is perhaps even more interesting in his development in the twentieth century, given that he had painted The Talisman in 1888, which is today generally held to have been a bold step in the direction of abstract painting.

Paul Sérusier (1864–1927), Washerwomen (1886/1897), oil on canvas, 89.9 x 73.7 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX. Wikimedia Commons.

During the height of Nabism, Sérusier remained most strongly influenced by Paul Gauguin, as shown in his Washerwomen, started in 1886 but not completed until as late as 1897.

Paul Sérusier (1864–1927), View of a Village (1906), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Sérusier’s View of a Village from 1906 is quite a marked contrast with its extraordinary sky and greater detail, but still shows its Nabi origins. Sérusier was, at the time at least, probably the most influential of the Nabis; following his experience teaching in the Académie Ranson, he published a book in 1921 ABC of Painting which is still cited.

Paul Sérusier (1864–1927), Tapestry (Five Weavers) (1924), oil on canvas, dimensions and location not known. Image by Bastenbas, via Wikimedia Commons.

Late in his career, Sérusier drew more heavily again on early modern painting, such as that of the late Middle Ages in paintings such as Tapestry (Five Weavers) from 1924. Unlike Vuillard, though, he remained happy to work in oil on canvas.

Where, then, are Sérusier’s abstract paintings, given that he painted through revolutionary phases such as Cubism? Oddly, he seems never to have pressed on in that direction from The Talisman, although in about 1910, he painted three works in which he used geometrical forms. He wrote later the these were an attempt to use Symbolism – rather than abstraction – to examine the relationships between man and the cosmos.

Next week I will look at five of the Nabis whose later work was very different from their Nabi style.