Progression of Art
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.
Oil on canvas - Kunsthaus Zurich
The Money: Intimacies (Intimités)
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)
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.
Oil on canvas - Kunsthaus Zürich
Le Bain au soir d'été (Bathers on a summer evening)
Painted in the same year as La Malade, Bathers on a summer evening illustrates Vallotton's shift from realism to something altogether more symbolic and decorative. In a strangely flattened composition, contemporary women (recognizable as such through their hairstyles and facial expressions) in various stages of undress bathe in, or disrobe beside, a pool. Vallotton flaunts the rules of perspective here: the ploughed lines of the distant fields follow convention by moving towards a vanishing point, while figures of differing sizes appear as if they have been arranged and collaged onto the background; disconnected, seemingly, from their surroundings and from each other. The treatment of some of the women is reminiscent of Manet's Dejeuner sur l'Herbe, and, in the erotic and decorative line drawings, the paintings of Klimt and Schiele. The style in which each of the women is rendered differs too. Some are naturalistically shaped and shaded; others almost encased in white rectangular robes, like pillars rising out of the water. Art historians Dita Amory and Ann Dumas said of this piece that "Its cold eroticism laid the foundations for Vallotton's entire later exploration of the Female nude".
Of all the works Vallotton created during his association with Les Nabis, Bathers on a summer evening was probably the most controversial, even causing a minor scandal when it was exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in the spring of 1893. Seen in the context of his earlier satirical works, the painting can be read as an ironic take on fin-de-siècle society and as a caricature of bourgeois leisure pursuits. Vallotton's variation on the theme of "the fountain of life" also provoked bemusement among the critics and public who failed to respond to its originality or to recognize the subtle references to the likes of Rousseau and Japanese ukiyo-e prints. On viewing the work, Toulouse-Lautrec was one of the few to appreciate it, but even he predicted that the police were likely to "come and take it away".
Oil on canvas - Kunsthaus, Zürich
Clair de lune (Moonlight)
Vallotton's association with Les Nabis led to the creation of this painting; a radiant, shimmering and semi-abstract, evocation of moonlight. A river snakes across a darkened landscape, reflecting the radiant full moon and the golden glow it casts on billowing clouds. In its simplified graphic style and rich golden patterns, Vallotton appears to be referencing the decoration of japoniste screens, his own woodcut prints, and Les Nabis theme of evoking inner feelings brought about by a world beyond perceptible reality.
Vallotton would create his reduced, idealized, landscapes in the studio from plein air sketches and snapshots from his Kodak camera. He wrote, "I dream of a painting entirely disengaged from any literal concern about nature. I want to construct landscapes entirely based on the emotions that they have created in me, a few evocative lines, one or two details, chosen, without a superstition of the exactitude of the hour or the lighting". Vallotton had discovered by now that the best way to achieve such results was through the careful planar style reserved previously for his woodcuts.
Musée d'Orsay, Paris
La Visite (The Visit)
In this sumptuous domestic scene, Vallotton lets the viewer in on a private moment, possibly a clandestine tryst between a man and a woman in a Paris drawing room. The strong verticals and horizontals of the room give the image the feeling of a theatrical set. The plush upholstered velvet furniture is echoed in the contours of the woman's coat, while a sinuous shadow extends from the black of the man's suit up the wall. A door is open to another room, probably an adjoining bed chamber, suggesting the couple's illicit intentions.
This is one of numerous images Vallotton painted of intimate moments between men and women, sometimes in restaurants, sometimes at the theater, and often suggesting seduction or coercion, but rarely romance or love. One critic, Octave Mirbeau, has described how, "the figures don't just smile and cry, they speak [...] they express strongly, with the most moving eloquence, when it is Monsieur Vallotton who hears them speak, their humanity and the character of their humanity". Vallotton himself spoke of something mysterious laying beneath the surface of his painting: "I think I paint for people who are level-headed but who have an unspoken vice deep inside them," he remarked. "I actually like this state which I share".
Distemper on cardboard - Kunsthaus, Zürich
Le Ballon (The Ball)
The Ball is one of Vallotton's best known works and was produced when he was still close to Les Nabis. Indeed, the bird's-eye view of figures in parks, gardens or other public places was a trait in paintings by Bonnard and Vuillard. For his take on this theme, Vallotton offers a high viewpoint of a child, his or her face obscured by a broad brimmed yellow hat, adorned with a red ribbon, and from under which a mop of blonde hair has escaped. The child's boots are a dull orange colour while the floating white smock trails behind the child in the wind, emphasising the running pace at which he or she chases the red ball. Set against the tawny expanse of ground, and the deep shadow cast by the trees (under which lies what appears to be a second, light brown, ball), the child brings a vivid splash of light, almost as if being chased by the dark shadow. Across the lake, our eye is drawn to two pale figures standing side by side, one dressed in blue, the other in white. The diminutive size of the two women suggests that they are stood in the far background yet the picture plane is flat and frontal, broken up by the diagonal curve of the lake.
Christine Dixon of the National Gallery of Australia, observed that there is a strong graphic quality to the painting which pays its debt to Vallotton's "dynamic black-and-white wood engravings" that offered "no half-tones, just positives and negatives". Dixon wrote, "Like most of the Nabis, Vallotton admired Japanese woodblock prints, and adapted many themes and stylistic conventions from them. But unlike Vuillard's and Bonnard's images of public-gardens "Vallotton did not decorate each view with ornamental patterns. He reduced rather than augmented the visual elements, and smoothed paint into a material parallel to reality". She adds that Vallotton's was an "outsider's view, and never one of unalloyed delight" and, as such, his child "plays alone, supervised by the adults glimpsed in the background". It is, Dixon concludes, "a city pleasure for the offspring of the bourgeoisie, this solitary ballgame, and any pastime less rowdy or companionable can hardly be imagined".
Oil on cardboard mounted on wood - Musée d'Orsay, Paris
L'église de Souain en silhouette (The church of Souain in silhouette)
Vallotton was 48 when war broke out and he felt redundant on learning that he was too old to serve his adopted country (he become a French citizen in 1900). He was profoundly affected by the violence in reports coming back from the front lines and following the 1916 French victory at Verdun, Vallotton wrote, "Out of the all the horror rises a perfect nobility; we are becoming truly proud to be on the side of humanity, and whatever happens, the French name is made young again with a lustre unknown until now".
In 1917 Vallotton was able to show his patriotism by accepting a commission from the French Ministry of Fine Arts to tour the Champagne front. There he found once proud towns and villages reduced to rubble and ruins. The artist asked himself, "What to represent of all this?". Souain had been the setting for two battles and was now an area used to test the ability of French tanks to cross razed terrains. Silhouetted against the backdrop of a desolate late afternoon sky, the hollow ruins of the church represent the senselessness and destructiveness of the ongoing war. The painting was produced in the studio based on sketches the artist made on his tour. Vallotton endows this view of the church with a cool detachment. His treatment of the subject is in fact more akin to the background painting for an animated film than the kind of meditation one might expect on the wreckage caused by conflict. The flattened colours, bold outlines, silhouetted trees and cartoon-like rendering of the wall, tiles and stone are stylised in the simple manner reminiscent of his woodcut prints.
Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Art, Washington DC
La Roumaine en robe rouge (Romanian woman in a red dress)
Returning to portraiture towards the end of his life, Valloton's sitters ranged from renowned cultural figures of the day (such as Edouard Vuillard and Gertrude Stein) to the Parisian prostitute pictured here, Mado Leviseano. His portrait of Leviseano is considered his last important work and is almost photo-realistic in its cold brutality and honesty. Not for the first time, however, Vallotton caused a minor scandal with his painting.
Leviseano slumps, looking withered and despondent, yet trying to retain her allure through a strained smile and a slipping dress strap. The solid red background merely reinforces the blank hollowness of her profession. The artist said of his portraits, "Human bodies, like faces, have their own individual expressions, which reveal, by their angles, their folds, their wrinkles, the joy, the pain, the boredom, the worries, the appetites, and the physical decay imposed by work, and the corrosive bitterness of voluptuousness". Vallotton's late portraits, nudes and landscapes, according to Christopher Le Brun, then President of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, are "magnetic in their controlled intensity and [are] often imbued with a potent atmosphere of uneasiness".
Le Brun's was not a view shared by the public of the day, however. When the painting was donated by Vallotton's family after his death to the Luxembourg Museum in Paris - then the premiere modern art museum in Paris - there was a chorus of complaints from patrons. They took exception to Leviseano's demeanour and broken expression and after three years the museum removed it from display. After pressure from the artist's widow, the painting was finally taken back by the Paris museums and it currently sits proudly on display at Centre Pompidou.
Oil on canvas - Centre Pompidou, Paris