Les Nabis

About Les Nabis

Who Are Les Nabis?

“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.” So began the manifesto of Les Nabis, a group of young French artists who played a vital role in the extension of the Impressionist project—the subtle evocation of natural light and atmosphere—into the more personally expressive realms of Expressionism and Abstraction.

Edouard Vuillard, LES COUTURIÈRES, 1890. Sold for 3,401,250 GBP in 2012.

The group took their name (pronounced lay-naw-bee) from the Hebrew word n'vi'ím (נְבִיאִים), meaning prophets, as the artists viewed themselves as prophets of modern art who sought to renew painting as the ancients had renewed Israel.

Paul Sérusier (1864-1927), L'Incantation ou Le Bois sacré, 1891

They were greatly inspired by Japanese woodblock artists, the English Pre-Raphaelites, and above all their countrymen Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne; drawing from these rich sources, they worked in a diverse range of styles and media, blazing not one continuous trail but a dozen circuitous garden paths leading into the major avant-garde movements of the twentieth century.

Characteristics and Style of Les Nabis

Other than their frequent use of simplified fields of bright color, Les Nabis were unified less by a defined style than a shared conviction that, as Denis wrote, “art is no longer a visual sensation that we gather [but] a creation of our spirit, for which nature is only the occasion.”

The first Nabis painting, by Paul Sérusier, Le Bois d'Amour à Pont-Aven or Le Talisman, 1888, oil on wood, 27 x 21.5 cm, Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Among the most recognizable themes are Pierre Bonnard's Japanese-inflected garden scenes with elegantly contorted figures in boldly patterned raiments; Sérusier's luminous allegories adapted from Greek mythology and medieval saintly legends; and Vuillard's lavishly furnished interiors.

Decorative screen showing a procession of carriages with nurses and children (1897), National Gallery of Victoria. As in Japanese screens, the action is read from right to left.

As a part of their expansive philosophy, Les Nabis wished to blur the delineation between fine art and decoration and many produced not only easel paintings but functional objects like dishware and lampshades, as well as theatrical pieces like puppets and costumes, and graphics like advertising posters and book illustrations.

Literary Liaisons

Félix Vallotton, A EDGAR POE. Sold for 3,750 CHF in 2018.

From the start, Les Nabis were strongly influenced by contemporary literature – particularly the Romantic and Symbolist poetry of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Edgar Allan Poe – and it was the poet Henri Cazalis who first proposed the group's name. The studio shared by Bonnard, Vuillard and Denis at 28 rue Pigalle was frequented not only by the other Nabis painters but by various figures from the Paris literary world. Chief among these was Pierre Veber, whose comedic plays of the period included Julien n'est pas un ingrat, which premiered at the Théâtre Antoine in 1898, and whose novels included Les Couches profondes, published by Empis in 1899. In addition, Denis illustrated editions of Paul Verlaine's Sagesse and Alfred de Vigny's Éloa, while Vallotton produced drawings for La Maîtresse by Jules Renard.

Impact and Legacy of Les Nabis

Like so many meteoric movements of the early modernist era – De Stijl, Der Blaue Reiter, Dada – the length of the group's tenure is inversely proportional to the depth of its influence on subsequent generations of artists. Les Nabis prefigured the development of Fauvism, Cubism and German Expressionism in the first years of the 20th century, which in turn set the stage for the ascendance of Abstract Expressionism, in both its painterly and post-painterly iterations, in the postwar period. Less distally, many contemporary artists have acknowledged a debt to Les Nabis, including Howard Hodgkin, Lisa Yuskavage and Wadie El Mahdy.

Maurice Denis, FEMMES ASSISES EN FORÊT, 1894. Sold for 118,750 EUR in 2017.

The work of the original Nabis are represented in numerous important institutional collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Petit Palais Museum in Paris and the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg.

Coda

Love life's weariness leavens;

Naught beside it is real;

Life is the flash in black heavens;

We see but in dreams the ideal.

–From Always, by Henri Cazalis (trans. J. Bithell)

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Timeline

Timeline & History of Les Nabis
  • 1874
    Louis Leroy’s disdainful review of Claude Monet’s atmospherically evocative painting Impression, soleil levant becomes the source of the term Impressionism, which would be a dominant force in French painting for the next decade.

    (left) Claude Monet, Impression, soleil levant, 1872
  • 1886
    The final Impressionist show is held in Paris; Seurat’s iconic pointillist painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte is included in the exhibition over some members’ objections and heralds the beginning of the Post-Impressionist movement.

    (left) Georges Seurat, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, 1884
  • 1888
    Paul Sérusier travels to Pont-Aven and, under the guidance of Paul Gauguin, sketches the port in vibrant, painterly blocks of color on the cover of a cigar box; upon Sérusier's return to Paris, he shows the study to fellow students at the Académie Julian, several of whom respond with enthusiasm and make it the emblem of their new movement

    (left) Paul Sérusier, Le Bois d'Amour à Pont-Aven or Le Talisman, 1888
  • 1889
    Les Nabis hold their first exhibition at Café des Arts, located outside the grounds of the Paris International Exhibition.

    (left) Café des Arts, Paris
  • 1890
    Maurice Denis writes The Definition of Neo-Traditionalism, the de-facto manifesto of the movement.

    (left) Maurice Denis, Portrait de l'artiste à l'âge de 18 ans, 1889
  • 1891
    Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard and Maurice Denis take a studio in the 9th arrondissement of Paris

    (left) Photograph of the Notre Dame, Paris, France, circa 1890-1900
  • 1892
    Bonnard and Vuillard assist Paul Ranson with the set design of Arthur Rimbaud's Bateau ivre.

    (left) Rimbaud, aged 17, by Étienne Carjat, probably taken in December 1871
  • 1893
    Félix Vallotton creates the lithograph poster for Siegfried Bing's seminal Art Nouveau exhibition

    (left) Felix Vallotton poster for Siegfried Bing's Gallery (1893)
  • 1894
    Les Nabis hold an important group exhibition in Toulouse.

    (left) Félix Vallotton, The Waltz, 1893
  • 1895
    Vuillard breaks into the realm of decorative arts with a series of ceramic plates.

    (left) Édouard Vuillard, Ceramic plate depicting a woman in a striped blouse, 1895
  • 1896
    Inspired by Japanese byōbu, Bonnard paints a four-panel screen depicting his family in a leafy garden.

    (left) The Bonnard Family in the garden, screen by Pierre Bonnard, 1896

  • 1897
    Les Nabis hold an exhibition at the Galerie Vollard

    (left) Félix Vallotton, The Mistress and the Servant, 1896
  • 1898
    Vallotton probes the private lives of the Paris bourgeoisie in his innovative woodcut series Intimités.

    (left) Felix Vallotton, La raison probante (The Cogent Reason), 1898, a woodcut from the series Intimités
  • 1899
    The French state acquires a painting by Maurice Denis, his first official recognition

    (left) Maurice Denis, Climbing to Calvary, 1889, Musée d'Orsay
  • 1900
    Les Nabis hold their final show at Galerie Bernheim

    (left) Ker-Xavier Roussel, Édouard Vuillard, Romain Coolus, Félix Vallotton, 1899
  • 1937
    Vuillard reflects on the group's breakup: “Society was ready to welcome cubism and surrealism before we had reached what we had imagined as our goal. We found ourselves in a way suspended in the air...”

    (left) The "Cubists" Dominate Paris' Fall Salon, The New York Times, October 8, 1911
  • 1947
    Pierre Bonnard, the longest-surviving member of the group, dies at age 79 in the French Rivera

    (left) Pierre Bonnard, Last self-portrait, 1945

Artists

Tongues in cheeks, Les Nabis adopted many of the trappings of a secret society, variously dubbing studio spaces their temple or ergastērium and giving one another honorary titles: Pierre Bonnard (The Very Japonist Nabi), Maurice Denis (The Nabi of Beautiful Icons), Meyer de Haan (The Dutch Nabi), Henri-Gabriel Ibels (The Journalist Nabi), Georges Lacombe (The Nabi Sculptor), Paul Ranson (The Nabi More Japonist than the Japonist Nabis), József Rippl-Rónai (The Hungarian Nabi), Paul Sérusier (The Nabi with the Shiny Beard), Félix Vallotton (The Foreign Nabi), Jan Verkade (The Obeliscal Nabi) and Édouard Vuillard (the Zouave Nabi).

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