Remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a female nude or some sort of anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.

Summary of Les Nabis

The Nabis (from the Hebrew and Arabic term for "prophets,") were a Symbolist, cult-like group founded by Paul Sérusier, who organized his friends into a secret society. Wanting to be in touch with a higher power, this group felt that the artist could serve as a "high priest" and "seer" with the power to reveal the invisible. The Nabis felt that as artists they were creators of a subjective art that was deeply rooted in the soul of the artist. While the works of the Nabis differed in subject matter from one another, they all ascribed to certain formal tenets - for example, the idea that a painting was a harmonious grouping of lines and colors. This one idea, however, produced many different solutions. The subjectivity and what might be called the artist's personal style was, in fact, accomplished through the choice of how to arrange these lines and colors. As an example of the Nabi approach, at the beginning of their meetings, they would recite the following "mantra" together: "sounds, colors, and words have a miraculously expressive power beyond all representation and even beyond the literal meaning of the words."

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • The Nabi group grew out of the work of Paul Gauguin, literary theory, and Symbolism - specifically, the idea that color and shape could represent experience - that, as the Nabi historian Charles Chassé has said, "a picture had meaning only when it possessed 'style.' That is to say when the artist had succeeded in changing the shape of the objects he was looking at and imposing on them contours or a color that expressed his own personality."
  • The Nabi artists considered themselves to be the initiates of a brotherhood devoted to exploring the pure sources of art, personal or spiritual. Searching for beauty beyond that found in nature, they seized upon the mysterious and mystical even if the subject related to ordinary, everyday life.
  • The Nabis expanded their aesthetic into the area of applied arts as well, including architectural painting, decorative screens, murals, posters, book illustrations, and designs for the theater. This interest in the decorative was both a part of the 19th century's retreat into aesthetics and beauty and of the ensuing century's taste for abstraction and the age of advertising.

Overview of Les Nabis

Les Nabis Image

When in the summer of 1888, Sérusier first visited Pont-Aven, he at reluctantly (thinking Gauguin too avant-garde) agreed to meet Gauguin through the artist Émile Bernard. Together they visited a beautiful natural area called the Bois d'Amour where, under the direct guidance of Gauguin and his Synthetist technique, Sérusier painted the work that he brought back to Paris and named The Talisman (1888). He thereupon decided to preach this new style to his own group of friends. Around the same time, Sérusier was also influenced by the current ideas circulating amongst the Symbolists including Neoplatonic philosophy, which combined pagan and Christian thought, and other spiritual directions.

Key Artists

  • Paul Gauguin was a French Post-Impressionist artist who employed color fields and painterly strokes in his work. He is best known for his primitivist depictions of native life in Tahiti and Polynesia.
  • The French artist Pierre Bonnard, although dismissed as old-fashioned by some of the avant-garde in his lifetime, was esteemed by contemporary colorists like Matisse. A member of the Nabis group in his youth, his innovative paintings play with light, decorative surfaces, and Impressionist techniques.
  • Maurice Denis was a French painter and writer, recognized as an important member of the Nabi and the Symbolist movements. A pioneering theorist who insisted on the flatness of the picture plane, Denis created brightly colored Post-Impressionist works that profoundly influenced the next generation of modern artists.
  • Édouard Vuillard was a French Post-Impressionist painter especially known for his interiors and domestic scenes. A member of the Les Nabis group, his works are characterized by rough areas of color, pointillist daubs and dots, and decorative patterns that spread out across background fabrics and wallpaper.
  • Paul Sérusier was a French Symbolist and Post-Impressionist painter, the founder of Les Nabis, and a key proponent of the late-nineteenth-century artistic movements Synthetism and Cloisonnism. Influenced by the work of Paul Gauguin, his innovative painting style incorporated vibrant color, abstract form, natural motifs, and religious themes.

Do Not Miss

  • Post-Impressionism refers to a number of styles that emerged in reaction to Impressionism in the 1880s. The movement encompassed Symbolism and Neo-Impressionism before ceding to Fauvism around 1905. Its artists turned away from effects of light and atmosphere to explore new avenues such as color theory and personal feeling, often using colors and forms in intense and expressive ways.
  • Symbolism is an artistic and literary movement that first emerged in France in the 1880s. In the visual arts it is often considered part of Post-Impressionism. It is characterized by an emphasis on the mystical, romantic and expressive, and often by the use of symbolic figures.

Important Art and Artists of Les Nabis

The Talisman, the River Aven at the Bois d'Amour (1888)

Artist: Paul Sérusier

Painted on the lid of a cigar box, this work was painted under Paul Gauguin's direction in his Synthetist style of expressive color. Gauguin had encouraged Paul Sérusier to approach nature from a subjective point of view, instructing the artist to use colors straight from the tube rather than attempting to mix them and match them up to what he saw in nature. According to Maurice Denis, Gauguin had told Sérusier: "How do you see these trees? They are yellow. So, put in yellow; this shadow, rather blue, paint it with pure ultramarine; these red leaves? Put in vermilion." Yet, the painting is also different from the work of Gauguin. The result was far more abstract - a painted reality, the "equivalent" of that which is perceived by the artist - with flat areas of bold color. However, certain elements of the landscape remain recognizable: trees, the path, the riverbank, and the mill. On his return to Paris, Sérusier showed his young fellow painters, the future Nabis, what was to become their "Talisman": the "magical charm" for the group. The theorist of the Nabi group, Denis, explained that in front of this landscape, he and his friends felt "liberated from all the yokes that the idea of copying brought to [our] painters' instincts."

Paul Ranson in Nabi Costume (1890)

Artist: Paul Sérusier

We know of very few portraits by Paul Sérusier, who specialized more in producing scenes of rural life in the Synthetist style of Paul Gauguin. The subject of the portrait, Paul Ranson, was a member of the Nabi group from the time it was set up by Sérusier in 1888, and is portrayed here in what seems to be a ceremonial costume. Recognizable by his goatee and lorgnon, he is depicted as deciphering the mysterious characters of a large manuscript. This is a clear example of the esotericism favored by certain Nabis, including Sérusier and Ranson. Moreover, the group used to meet in Ranson's studio in the Boulevarde du Montparnasse each Saturday. The studio was nicknamed "The Temple." There is no evidence that the Nabis actually wore this sort of garment; indeed, it is important to bear in mind that the Nabis' meetings at the "Temple" could also be lighthearted and farcical. However, the various symbols on Ranson's costume reveal Sérusier's interest in the occult. These include a five-pointed star decorating the crosier. This "pentogram," for example, could represent the mind or the head dominating the four limbs. Sérusier's painting, therefore, serves as a sort of document of the Nabis group in that it suggests the group's practices in a symbolic way.

Nabi Landscape (1890)

Artist: Paul Ranson

This simple composition is based on flat shapes - including the flat, exotic patterns of Paul Gauguin - intense colors, and curving lines based on organic form. However, the subjects are Symbolist in character, and include the astral symbols of sun and moon hovering in the sky above the mountains (the celestial home of the gods), a bearded prophet figure or "Nabi" encased in a dark aura, (whom some have suggested represents the Hindu god Rama) wearing an ouroboros bracelet (the snake biting its tail), a peacock, and a phoenix-like bird - all symbols of the cyclical and eternal life - mounted by a female figure (possibly Sita, wife of Rama, coming back to earth). On the back of the painting are Arabic letters that spell out "Nabi." In this painting, Ranson reveals himself as the Nabi artist closest to the style of Art Nouveau, and the artist perhaps most seriously wedded to the kinds of obscure iconography taken from world religions, Celtic legends, and theosophy (a system of esoteric philosophy seeking direct knowledge of the mysteries of being and nature, particularly the nature of the divine).

Useful Resources on Les Nabis

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Les Nabis Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 05 Dec 2014. Updated and modified regularly
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