Biography of Félix Vallotton
Childhood and Education
Félix Edouard Vallotton, and his older brother Paul, were born into a modest Protestant family living in Lausanne, on the shores of Lake Geneva. Felix's father, Alexis, owned a chandlery and grocery shop and would later take charge of a chocolate factory. His mother, Mathilde, descended from a line of furniture makers. The young Félix was a delicate and sensitive boy and, because of the smallpox epidemics that were sweeping Europe, he spent extended periods cosseted in the family home. In addition to his scholastic subjects, which included classes in Greek and Latin, he enjoyed drawing and painting (a passion no doubt fostered in his periods of extended lockdown) and pursued after-school art classes with the painter Jean-Samson Guignard. It was in these sessions that he first demonstrated his precocious talent for depicting subjects with an uncanny precision.
Having graduated from Collège Cantonal in 1882, a sixteen year old Vallotton persuaded his father to take him to Paris so that he could learn more about pursuing a career as a painter. He had passed the entrance exam to the École des Beaux Arts but opted instead for the more relaxed Académie Julian because it focused on "real art" and "naturalism" and offered courses on lithography and other forms of printmaking. Vallotton studied under three great French figurative painters: Jules Joseph Lefebvre, Guillaume Bougereau and Gustave Boulanger. As a student he earned a reputation for hard work but was worryingly reclusive and lacking in self-belief. Nevertheless, his tutors looked upon him as a model student and had great hopes for him.
Vallotton spent much of his free time in the Louvre and he became enamoured with the works of the Renaissance Masters, as well as Goya, Manet, and Ingres. While at the Académie, Vallotton also struck up friendships with the Polish engraver Félix Jasinski and the painter and engraver Charles Maurin. Vallotton painted Jasinski's portrait while Jasinski returned the compliment by teaching Vallotton about the art of engraving. The two men would work together on many future projects.
For his part, Maurin, who was eight years Vallotton's senior, supported his disillusioned friend through letters: "Whatever you lack it is certainly not artistic flair. It is rather some quality of character (please allow me to mention this to you). (I would like you to be as open with me.) From your last letter it emerges that you lack strong will and you are creating difficulties for yourself. But that is not the case. You do have willpower but it does not manifest itself". Even if Maurin's kind words had soothed Vallotton, his woes were merely compounded by financial hardship and he had to call on his father for money to help pay for lodgings, food, and to pay for the hire of models. A homesick Felix wrote to his parents complaining: "I practically never go out. I work from seven in the morning until five in the afternoon. This has not produced any great results so far, everything must work out soon". Happily things did "work out soon" when, in 1885, Vallotton's portrait of one of his neighbours, Mr Ursenbach (a mathematician and Mormon) was accepted by the Paris Salon jury (of which Lefebvre was a member) for exhibition. With that upturn, it seems Vallotton became more systematic, and thus began his lifelong mission of cataloguing of all of his own works (they numbered 1,700 by the end of his life).
In 1887, Vallotton distanced himself from the Académie Julian after his Realist portraits received criticism from his erstwhile supporter, Lefebvre. In spite of his conservative Swiss upbringing, and a constraining lack of funds, he immersed himself in Parisian life. Maurin had introduced his friend to the bohemian haunts of Montmartre where he met Henri Toulouse-Lautrec at the cabaret Le Chat Noir. Vallotton moved to the artists' district of Montparnasse where he drew closer to Toulouse-Lautrec and the culture of bohemian Paris. To help make ends meet, he began selling prints of drawings he had made of Rembrandt and Millet, took on part-time work as a restorer in an art gallery and, in 1890, he began contributing art reviews to the Swiss Gazette de Lausanne (an appointment he maintained until 1897).
His Parisian adventure was stalled after he suffered a bout of typhoid fever, followed by a period of deep depression, which saw him return to Switzerland for recuperation. In 1892 Vallotton met French seamstress Hélène Chatenay with whom he shared a relationship until 1899. He also earned money from portrait commissions. Many of his Paris commissions were secured through fellow Swiss ex-patriots living in the French capital. One such friend was the Swiss artist Ernest Bieler who persuaded his close acquaintance, Auguste de Molins, to write a letter of introduction on behalf of Vallotton to Renoir and Degas.
Vallotton's own catalogue of works started to list his engravings from 1887 and in a letter to his parents in late 1889 he told them he had begun working on commissions for a publisher. He earned a good living from his engraving work and by 1891 his wood engravings overtook the number of paintings listed in his personal catalogue. In addition to his engravings and portraits, Vallotton's early period also featured a number of impressionistic landscapes, usually featuring mountain views around Lausanne and Lake Geneva. The artist was fond of his commissioned landscapes and often kept them for his personal collection. One such study was Le port de Pully (Port of Pully) on the lake front located on the shores of Lake Geneva. By this time, however, Vallotton was turning his artistic attentions towards social satire and interior narratives.
In 1892, the critic Octave Uzanne said of Vallotton, "This newcomer who is not a beginner, engraved on blocks of soft pearwood various scenes of contemporary life with the candour of a sixteenth-century woodcut". Indeed, through his growing mastery of woodcut printing, and his keen sense of graphic style, Vallotton became highly sought after by a new wave of French journals, eager to recruit an artist who shared their liberal, sometimes anarchistic, sympathies. Magazines such as Le Courrier Français, Le Rire, Le Cri de Paris and L'Escarmouche paid their star illustrator well for his acerbic and witty illustrations.
Vallotton also exhibited with the inimitable Salon de la Rose+Croix, a gallery run by an association of Rosicrucian devotees that balked at both Classical Art and the Impressionists in favor of promoting their own Spiritualist and Symbolist preferences. Here he exhibited his woodprint portrait of the poet Paul Verlaine (who attended), just one of several literary portraits he made of the likes of Poe, Dostoevsky, Stendhal, and contemporaries including Mallarmé and Rimbaud. According to Oxford academic Patrick McGuiness, Vallotton had "developed a visual shorthand for the literary portrait, creating a style that was totally distinct: a mixture of refinement of effect and economy of means that captured a writer's aura through the deft manipulation of black and white". Ever the outsider, Vallotton was an uneasy fit for the group, however, and only exhibited with them once.
While his politically subversive woodcuts were exposing such themes as police brutality and street demonstrations, his impressively original, but critically vilified, Bathing on a Summer Evening (1892), indicated that he was pursuing a visual language that was less naturalist and altogether more Symbolist - and more erotic - than his early works. Vallotton also found time to design a theater playbook cover for Swedish dramatist August Srtindberg's The Father (1894) and provided illustrations for several books throughout the 1890s including Jules Renard's The Mistress (1896) and Remy de Gourmont's The Book of Masks (1896).
Japanese prints had become highly prized in Paris, especially after an ambitious exhibition of ukiyo-e works at the École des Beaux Arts in the late 1880s. Vallotton also saw Japanese prints, including some by Hokusai, at the Paris Universal Exposition of 1898 where he was exhibiting a number of his own works. While Vallotton's painting output was shifting towards domestic scenes, his exposure to the Japanese art saw him simplify his compositions. So inspired, Vallotton cut his blocks lengthwise along the grain of the trunk. He also revived the "white-line" technique, whereby the woodblock is first saturated in black ink, then white lines are carved into the inked surface. In his starkly rendered images, Vallotton's figures seem to emerge from the solid mass of dense black. He would soon become the leading light in the revival of woodcut method, reinventing it as a legitimate artistic medium. The artistic focus did not meet with everyone's approval, however. "No one pays attention nowadays to anything but prints", mourned the veteran Impressionist Camille Pissarro, "it's a rage, the young generation produces nothing else".
Vallotton's growing reputation as a printmaker led to an invitation to join the newly-formed Les Nabis (Prophets) alongside artists such as Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, and Maurice Denis. The members of Les Nabis were united in their devotion to the Symbolism of Gauguin and Cézanne. They also shared in Vallotton's appreciation of Japanese art, principally the flatness of the picture surface, the simplified, abstracted forms and ornamental elements, and the use of strong lines and lurid, unnatural colours. But, while he remained close to Vuillard, Vallotton never quite fitted in with the other group members and became known as "le Nabi étranger" (the "foreign" or "strange" Nabi). Vallotton's sympathy for Alfred Dreyfus, the wrongly accused Jewish military officer in France's long-running political scandal, only strained his relationship with Les Nabis further. Yet it was due to his association with the group that Vallotton became connected with a circle of writers, critics and artists for the influential literary magazine La revue blanche; an avant-garde journal for which he became principal illustrator. Indeed, La revue blanche provided the once lonely Swiss émigré with an extended family (albeit one comprised of anarchistic revolutionaries).
Through his prestigious La revue blanche series of woodcuts, Intimacies (1897-98), Vallotton indicated that he had exhausted the theme of civilian/state power struggles and had turned his ire towards the superficial, immoral behaviour (as he saw it) of bourgeois couples. Art historian Lise Holst described how the collection offered the public and critic "something of an iconographic puzzle, one which is worth unravelling as it offers insights into both the artist and his milieu [modern Paris]". With his ten woodcuts, their black surfaces cut through by a few white lines, Vallotton interrogated the emotional lives of the Parisian bourgeoisie, touching upon the struggle between man and woman in scenes of adultery a deceit that are almost melodramatic in their execution. Such was the success of Intimacies, many commissions followed from non-French publications such as the Chicago-based Francophile magazine, The Chap-Book. When La revue blanche ceased publication in 1903, Vallotton's engagement with its close-knit Parisian artistic and literary world came to an end too.
In April 1898, Vallotton showed paintings at the gallery of Ambroise Vollard, the influential dealer who supported Cézanne, Renoir, Picasso and numerous other upcoming artists. The following year, a major change took place in Vallotton's life when he married the widow, and mother-of-three, Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques, who was the daughter of Alexandre Bernheim, a prominent art dealer. In a letter to his brother, he wrote: "Some great news that will really surprise you: I'm going to get married. I am marrying a lady I have known and appreciated for a long time [...] She has enough means to support herself and her children, and with what I will be able to earn, we will manage very easily. And what's more, the family will take care of the children, and I am sure will be a powerful source of help to my career. They are important art dealers".
No longer reliant on magazine illustrations for income, the critic Julius Meier-Graefe observed that "Painting was his final phase" and that his wood engraving could be effectively thought of as a "preparatory period" during which "he explored everything he now wished to incorporate into his painting". Having left his Bohemian lifestyle behind, and returned to one closer to his upbringing, Vallotton had become part of a French establishment family, the kind of which he had previously attacked, and his paintings were now populated with the characters from his new life. His new status brought with it the anticipated spike in his artistic fortunes. In 1903 Vallotton exhibited at the Vienna Secession and sold a number of paintings there. That same year, the French government bought one of his works for the first time for the Luxembourg Museum. His marriage also allowed Vallotton access to one of the most significant galleries in Paris, the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, owned by his wife's family. It bestowed on Vallotton two solo shows at which he sold a combined total of 13 paintings.
Vallotton's work was collected by the Swiss painter and patron Hedy Hahnloser who encouraged further sales and wrote his biography. Leo Stein, brother to the legendary literary salon hostess Gertrude Stein, also became a collector. Having described him as "a Manet for the impecunious". Gertrude nevertheless posed for a portrait by Vallotton, just a year after she had sat for Picasso. The author and critic James R. Mellow described Picasso's portrait as "a stunning transitional work" that overlapped "the end of his Rose Period of harlequins and circus subjects" with the "brown and somber" coloring and "sharp and angular characterization [that] looked ahead to the approach of Cubism ". Picasso may have had the higher profile as an artist but, as the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery pointed out, "in pulling Stein's head back from the picture plane and making her robe a monolithic platform for her massive head and hands, Vallotton rendered her a female Buddha [and by] the late 1920s [it was Vallotton's] interpretation of Stein as imperious, remote and ageless that became the common one ". The artist also painted his wife numerous times (usually involved in domestic activity) and by 1907 he had also found time to pen a novel, La Vie meurtrière (The Murderous Wife), published posthumously in 1930. (Vallotton also produced several unpublished plays over subsequent years.)
In his later years, Vallotton rarely returned to social satire. After 1904, cool, detached images of nudes became his principal subject. In these works there is little painterly sensuality and the influence of Ingres resurfaces. His cold approach to his subject was often criticized. For example, a 1910 review in Neue Zürcher Zeitung, likened Vallotton to "a policeman, like someone whose job it is to catch forms and colors. Everything creaks with an intolerable dryness [...] the colors lack all joyfulness". The writer Julian Barnes wrote that, "He is a painter who, more than any other I can think of, ranges from high quality to true awfulness" and suggested the following rule of thumb applied to Vallotton's nudes: "the fewer clothes a woman has on in his paintings, the worse the result".
In spite of his seesawing critical fortunes, the French government offered Vallotton the Légion d'Honneur in 1912 which he refused (like Bonnard and Vuillard before him). Two years later, when the First World War broke out, he was considered too old to serve. Vallotton was deeply affected by reports of the devastation and loss of life and in 1915 returned to woodcuts for a series titled C'est la guerre! (This is War), his very final series of prints. At the request of the French government he toured the battlefields of the Champagne region and painted its destructive effect on civilian buildings and churches. In 1917 he also published an essay, "Art et Guerre" ("Art and War"), in Les Écrits nouveaux in which he described the challenges of capturing the realities of the war through art.
In his final years, and fighting ill health, Vallotton became more withdrawn from public life. He continued to paint, however, focussing now mainly on landscapes and still lifes. Created in the studio from sketches and photographs, the landscapes possess an almost hypnotic tranquillity. "I would like to be able to re-create landscapes only with the help of the emotion they have provoked in me," the artist wrote in 1916, "a few large evocative lines, one or two details, chosen with no thought for the exact time or light". The French author Mathias Morhardt added, "In his interpretation of nature, he looked for its subtlest aspects: soft colouring and concealed melancholy". His print-inspired landscape, The Dordogne at Carennac, in the south-west of France, would prove to be one of his last finished works. Vallotton died, one day after his 60th birthday in 1925, following cancer surgery.
The Legacy of Félix Vallotton
Largely forgotten, or at least side-lined, from the grand narrative of modernist art, Vallotton nevertheless made a significant contribution to the visual record of life during the turn-of-the-century in Paris. In this respect, his prints, with their stark black-and-white graphic approach, can be likened to the impact Aubrey Beardsley was making on Bohemian London. Vallotton's story-telling approach, with its cartoon-like characters, are perhaps pre-cursors to European bande desinée (drawn strips) such as Tintin or the more recent political graphic novels such as Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis or Art Spiegelman's Maus.
In Vallotton's cool and detached observation of life, and the psychological disquiet of his subjects, similarities can be made to the paintings and prints of Edvard Munch, Edward Hopper and even the Surrealist René Magritte. There are also strong resonances with the cinematic vision of German Expressionist Fritz Lang, with his striking use of chiaroscuro shadows, and Alfred Hitchcock's, cool domestic interiors and foreboding spaces which he filled with mysterious and sinister characters. More recently, director Wes Anderson and his partner Juman Malouf have been inspired by Vallotton to create flattened colour schemes for their highly idiosyncratic set designs. Art critics and historians have given Vallotton credit for reviving the moribund art of woodcut, which was adopted from 1905 by Expressionist artists such as the Germans Erich Heckel and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Indeed, since Vallotton's intervention the status of woodcut has become accepted as a legitimate medium for modern artists to explore.
Content compiled and written by Robert Weinberg
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd
Content compiled and written by Robert Weinberg
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Tony Todd
First published on 26 Nov 2020. Updated and modified regularly