- Félix Vallotton: The Nabi from SwitzerlandBy Nathalia Brodskaïa
- Félix VallottonBy Dita Amory, Philippe Buttner, and others
- Félix Vallotton: Fire Beneath the IceBy Marina Ducrey
- Félix Vallotton: Les paysages de l'émotionBy Bruno Delarue and Michel Pastoureau
- When Gertrude Stein Toured AmericaSmithsonian Magazine, October 13, 2011
Important Art by Félix Vallotton
In 1883, a 17-year-old Vallotton wrote a letter to his brother Paul bemoaning his new life in Paris: "The professor is pleased with me, but I am not pleased with myself and sometimes feel sad [...] My heart sinks when I think of what I am about to study and realise that I am nothing compared with the great artists who startled the world at the age of fifteen". It was not a view shared by Jules Lefebvre (his professor) who wrote to Vallotton's worried father stating: 'Monsieur, I hold your son in high esteem, and have only had occasion to compliment him up to now. I think that, if I had such a son, I would not be worried about his future at all and would unhesitatingly be prepared, with the bounds of possibility, to make sacrifices over and over again, in order to help him". Lefebvre concluded: "I am so interested now in those who are prepared to work - your son is one of those. [He] will bring you fame".
Firmly grounded in the academic tradition in which he was trained, Vallotton's first success demonstrates his not inconsiderable technical skill. In 1885 he submitted the Portrait of Mr Ursenbach to the Salon jury. The jury, on which Lefebvre sat, accepted the painting for public exhibition. The setting for the portrait is the sitter's (an American mathematician and neighbour of the artist) dour study while Ursenbach is seated in his armchair in a rigid upright pose. He is not a man at ease with himself (or, so it seems, with the teenage artist) and his face carries a stern expression. His hands rest upon his knees while his gaze is directed outside of the frame. Though it is executed with aplomb, it remains an unusual portrait and it was probably Ursenbach's unconventional pose that grabbed the attention of the jury and visitors to the exhibition. The portrait divided critics but it gave a once downhearted young artist all the incentive he needed to embark in earnest on his life-long career. In 1889 Vallotton exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris as the Swiss representative and won favorable notices for the same portrait.
Vallotton is attributed with reinventing woodcuts by introducing them to a new audience through contemporary, psychologically charged, subject matter. With his Intimacies series of 10 prints, he had moved away from his overt political statements to observe private interior settings featuring the "intimacies" of Parisian bourgeois couples. The works, which remain, arguably, his best known, feature smooth black blocks of wood, cut through with sharp white lines. In The Money, two-thirds of the woodcut remains in black while the cut itself occupies only one-third of the left side of the image. Vallotton shows us a gentleman trying to engage in conversation with his companion. She, however, seems disengaged and her gaze is fixed on something beyond the balcony widow and outside the picture frame. Vallotton creates a sense of ambiguity and dramatic mystery through the image; its title allowing the viewer's imagination to run free with possible (negative) interpretations.
Vallotton was creating these works at a tumultuous time for a city rushing headlong into modernity. The assault on tradition gave rise to feelings of disillusionment and unease, especially amongst the conservative bourgeois class. And at a time when so much focus was on the changing face of the city, it was farsighted of Vallotton to turn his attention to interior worlds. As arts journalist Kitty Jackson observed, "For Vallotton [...] the interior scene seems to subvert our expectation of control, of being 'at home' in your own residence. Instead of posing, looking out from the canvas and sitting steadily for a portrait work, the upper-class people in Vallotton's images are caught off-guard, unposed and unprepared. They are captured mid-conversation, mid-elicit tryst or mid-deception. Their interior world is one of lies, of tension and of disconnection. Vallotton seems to use the interior space as a scene in which to get under the skin of the lavish display of wealth and gentility in Parisian society. He suggests that behind the carefully orchestrated displays of bourgeoisie life there is dislocated, troubling and fractured reality".
La Malade has at once the vivid clarity and formal composition of a Dutch Old Master painting and the feel of a chamber play. A maid brings a drink for her sick colleague - posed for by Vallotton's mistress Hélene Chatenay - who has her back to the viewer. On the wall hangs a print of a Madonna and Child by Gustave Doré. The painting is clearly rooted in the traditions of Realism, but there remains something strangely disconcerting about the painting. The maid appears to be posing for the artist rather than attending to her patient, and the curve of the rug and encroaching screen on the left adds to its uncanny, claustrophobic, air. La Malade was perhaps the final culmination of Vallotton's early realistic style before he began to introduce into his painting the simplified style he was already experimenting with in his woodcuts.