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Félix Vallotton Photo

Félix Vallotton

Swiss/French Painter, Printmaker

Born: December 28, 1865 - Lausanne, Switzerland
Died: December 29, 1925 - Neuilly-sur-Seine, Paris, France
Movements and Styles:
Les Nabis
"I think I paint for people who are level-headed but who have an unspoken vice deep inside them. I actually like this state which I share."
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Félix Vallotton
"Life is smoke. We struggle, we delude ourselves, we cling to ghosts that give way beneath the hand, and death is there. Happily, there is still painting."
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Félix Vallotton
"I dream of a painting free from any literal respect for nature."
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Félix Vallotton
"The life I live is literally the opposite of the life I dreamed of. I love seclusion, silence, cultivated thinking and reasoned action - and I have to deal with machinations, foolish talk and vain affectation."
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Félix Vallotton
"More than ever the object amuses me; the perfection of an egg; the moisture on a tomato...these are the problems for me to resolve."
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Félix Vallotton

Summary of Félix Vallotton

Vallotton never quite reached the heights of fame of some of his avant-garde contemporaries, but he developed his own unique style and history now views him as one of the most original artists of his era. His status stands on a body of work that encompasses portraits, satirical prints, interior narratives, landscapes and still lifes. His early printmaking caught the eye of Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard who invited him to join the Nabis group. Though he never really settled as a member of Nabis, his affiliation with the group brought him into contact with a circle of literary bohemians. Through these new associations he was able to plot a more singular path that saw him make his name via a collection of groundbreaking satirical woodcuts for avant-garde left-wing journals. As his career evolved, Vallotton turned his dispassionate eye more and more towards painting. Transferring the block technique of his printmaking to his painting, his distinctive vision offered a fine balance between Realist and Symbolist techniques that saw many of his mature works convey a palpable sense of psychological disquiet.


  • In creating some of the most visually distinctive, and bitingly satirical, images of turn-of-the-century Parisian life, Vallotton earned the title of greatest printmaker of his generation. Credited in fact with reviving the art of woodcut printing, he drew on the traditions of Ukiyo-e Japanese woodblock prints, by eighteenth century artists such as Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige, to create biting political narratives whose effect was heightened through his bold contrast of jet black ink on white paper.
  • Though he was at the center of the most experimental period of Western art, Vallotton remained mostly dedicated to realist representations. Resisting the abstract preferences of the avant-garde, he produced a more idiosyncratic style of painting that the public and critics of the day failed to fully comprehend and, as such, he can be credited with widening the parameters of what it meant to be a "modernist". Indeed, his daring and originality led to a habit for creating controversy that the avant-gardist would have been proud of.
  • Vallotton was famous for an album of 10 prints entitled intimacies, a collection of domestic vignettes chronicling intimate liaisons between bourgeois couples. In Vallotton's unravelling of the forbidden mores of private bourgeois life, he had, according to historians such as Merel van Tilburg, brought art into line with late-nineteenth century literature in the way commentaries on the hidden drives of the human psyche were anticipating the imminent birth of psychoanalysis.
  • Based on sketches and photographs, but formed in his imagination, Vallotton's paysages composés ("patched together" landscapes) were unique and possessed an otherworldly quality that might have pre-empted the Surrealists. Through their bold outlines, flattened colors and silhouettes, images such as The Sheaves (1915) and The church of Souain in silhouette (1917) remain some of the most moving symbolic meditations on the affects of the Great War.

Biography of Félix Vallotton

Félix Vallotton Life and Legacy

"The master of eerie estrangement", the Royal Academy labelled him. It was a title Vallotton might have appreciated given his preference for painting "people who are level-headed but who have an unspoken vice deep inside them" ... a state of being, he readily admitted, "that I share".

Important Art by Félix Vallotton

Mr Ursenbach (1885)

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.

The Money: Intimacies (Intimités) (1897-98)

The Money: Intimacies (Intimités) (1897-98)

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 (The Sick Girl) (1892)

La Malade (The Sick Girl) (1892)

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.

Influences and Connections

Useful Resources on Félix Vallotton

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Content compiled and written by Robert Weinberg

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd

"Félix Vallotton Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Robert Weinberg
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd
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First published on 26 Nov 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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