Exhibitions/ Beyond the Easel

Beyond the Easel: Decorative Painting by Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis, and Roussel, 1890–1930

June 26–September 9, 2001
Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

Exhibition Overview

At the turn of the last century a group of artists that included Bonnard, Denis, Roussel, Vuillard, and their circle—known as the Nabis, from the Hebrew word for prophet—took up the call to move beyond conventional easel paintings. These artists played a crucial role in the promotion of "décorations," bold, beautiful, large-scale compositions conceived singly and in groups for specific interiors. While descended from the illustrious tradition of eighteenth-century French compositions of Watteau and Boucher, their pictures are strikingly avant-garde in conception. The artists initially considered small wall paintings elitist and bourgeois, whereas they intended their "décorations" to serve as a link between art and daily life. This exhibition consists of more than eighty large-scale paintings from public and private collections in Europe and the United States. It offers a rare opportunity for American audiences to see the decorative projects carried out by these artists between 1890 and 1930, including many panels that have never been shown outside France. Furthermore, great effort has been made to reunite panels that were created for specific rooms, so that the ensembles can be seen together for the first time since they were dismantled from their original interiors.

Influenced by the English Arts and Crafts Movement, the Rococo revival, and a growing interest in Japanese art, Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis, and Roussel were increasingly intrigued with the concept of décorations in the 1890s. They aimed to create an environment in which art and daily life were inextricably linked. The results are spectacular groups of unusually scaled paintings, conceived singly and in groups for domestic and public interiors. Many of the decorations are fragile and have never before or only rarely traveled to the United States. Great effort has been made to reunite paintings so that examples from each series may be seen together. The exhibition is arranged chronologically, beginning with studies for the first "Decorative Panels" that Bonnard exhibited at the 1891 Salon des Indépendants, as well as Denis' response: Panels to Decorate the Bedroom of a Young Girl, presented at the Salon des Indépendants the following year. Also included are two of Denis' ceiling paintings, Ladder in Foliage, or Poetic Arabesques for the Decoration of a Ceiling and April (1892 and 1894).

A small room is devoted to The Album, five panels that Vuillard created in 1895 for Thadée and Misia Natanson. The paintings hung in the Natansons' home until financial difficulties forced their sale in 1908. The Metropolitan Museum's presentation of this exhibition marks the first time the entire series has been reunited in almost one hundred years.

In the mid-1890s, Paris art dealer Siegfried Bing was an important advocate for these decorative ensembles; he exhibited Vuillard's Album series at his gallery, La Maison de l'Art Nouveau, in 1895, as well as a series he had commissioned from Denis, Decorations for the Bedroom of a Young Girl. This exhibition features one panel from the Bing commission, as well as five panels from a similar series that Denis painted for his own bedroom over the next few years.

A large gallery of the exhibition is devoted to Vuillard's Parisian cityscapes. Of particular note are his depictions of the Place Vintimille, which the artist painted from his apartment window. A spectacular five-panel screen depicting the place was painted in 1911 for Marguerite Chapin, an American living in Paris. In addition to preliminary studies for the screen, the Metropolitan's presentation includes an important later version, showing the same square from a different vantage point and under construction.

The final galleries of the exhibition are devoted to the shared interest of Roussel, Denis, and Bonnard in the idyllic qualities of southern France. The last gallery features Bonnard's colorful, sun-drenched canvases, including three paintings that he created in 1906–10 for Misia Edwards (who had since divorced Thadée Natanson and married a wealthy businessman) on the theme of exotic lands, voyages, and pleasure. Another highlight of this room is the thirteen-foot-tall triptych Mediterranean (1911), commissioned by Ivan Morozov for his Moscow home, which has been installed in a recreation of that interior. Also featured are two of the decorations Bonnard created for the entryway of art dealer Georges Bernheim's Paris home (1916–20), as well as three of the artist's paintings depicting the terrace of his home at Vernon.

The exhibition is made possible in part by the Janice H. Levin Fund.
The exhibition is organized by The Art Institute of Chicago in collaboration with The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
An indemnity has been granted by the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.
Educational programs have been made possible by the Georges Lurcy Charitable and Educational Trust.