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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Nabis and Decorative Painting

Ambitious decorative painting enjoyed a resurgence in Europe from the late 1880s through the early twentieth century. In Paris, Pierre Bonnard (1999.180.1), Maurice Denis (1999.180.2ab), and Édouard Vuillard were among the most influential artists to embrace decoration as painting’s primary function. Their works celebrate pattern and ornament, challenge the boundaries that divide fine arts from crafts, and, in many cases, complement the interiors for which they were commissioned.

Disaffected with the rigidly representational painting methods taught at the Académie Julian, Bonnard and Denis joined with other like-minded students in the fall of 1888 to form a brotherhood called the “Nabis,” a Hebrew word meaning “prophets.” The group was spearheaded by Paul Sérusier, who had visited Paul Gauguin in Pont-Aven over the summer and was now spreading an aesthetic message based on his interpretation of Gauguin’s Symbolism. Sérusier sought to free form and color from their traditional descriptive functions in order to express personal emotions and spiritual truths. As evidence of Symbolism’s liberating possibilities, he offered a nearly abstract sketch produced under Gauguin’s guidance. The Nabis accorded such powers to this work—a loosely handled, brightly colored representation of the Bois d’Amour at Pont-Aven painted on the cover of a cigar box—that it became known as The Talisman (1888; Musée d’Orsay, Paris), suggesting mystical properties. In the 1890s, the group expanded to include Vuillard and several of his fellow students at the École des Beaux-Arts, as well as Danish, Dutch, Hungarian, and Swiss artists. The Nabis remained loosely affiliated and participated in solo and group exhibitions in France and around Europe until 1899.

The Nabis rejected the Renaissance ideal of easel painting as a window onto a fictional world. Disavowing illusions of depth, they abandoned both linear perspective and modeling. Like many of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, they were inspired by the broad planes of unmediated color, thick outlines, and bold patterns that characterize Japanese prints. Unlike prints, however, Nabi paintings often feature textured surfaces created by varied brushstrokes. In the words of Maurice Denis, the results remind us that painting “is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.”

In both their artistic production and their theoretical writings, the Nabis stressed continuities between art and design. Although they continued to use traditional supports like canvas and panel, they also branched out to paint on a range of flat surfaces, including velvet, cardboard, and screens. Like the members of the English Arts and Crafts movement, the Nabis maintained an egalitarian attitude toward materials and collaborated with patrons, designers, publishers, and dealers on decorative projects ranging from set designs to wallpaper, textiles, ceramics, and stained glass. Several of the artists created posters, illustrations, playbills, and other prints using the relatively new method of color lithography (2000.35), which reproduced their characteristic flowing draftsmanship for mass audiences.

Many of these artists designed large-scale decorative schemes for specific interiors. Puvis de Chavannes (58.15.2), whose classicizing murals decorated some of the most important public buildings of the day, provided an important precedent. Sérusier and Denis were particularly influenced by Puvis’ friezelike compositions set against flattened landscapes painted in muted tones. Works like Denis’ Springtime (ca. 1894–99; 1999.180.2ab) also adopt Puvis’ distinctive approach to history painting, which conveys abstract ideas, rather than actions or events, through idealized groups of static figures. Vuillard’s Album series of 1895 (2000.93.2) adapts large-scale painting to the needs of a domestic interior. Matching the eclecticism of patrons Thadée and Misia Natanson, publishers of the avant-garde journal La Revue Blanche, these five paintings vary in size, motif, and color, and are linked only by their common theme of women and flowers. Unlike Puvis’ murals, Vuillard’s domestic series were not painted directly onto walls. Yet they were sometimes displayed unframed, pinned directly against patterned wallpaper, which emphasized continuity with their surroundings.

Yet, as Nicholas Watkins notes in the exhibition catalogue Beyond the Easel, these artists’ interest in interior décor did not render them “cultural rebels.” Rather, the Nabis and Puvis belong to a tradition of painters decorating interiors that dates back at least to the frescoes and tapestry cartoons that Raphael created for the Vatican. In the nineteenth century, artists as distinguished as Ingres and Delacroix vied for commissions to decorate France’s public buildings with large-scale murals depicting classical or religious narratives.

After the Nabis disbanded in 1899, Bonnard (1975.1.156) and Vuillard (2000.197) continued to develop an “Intimist” style of decorative painting. Their small-scale works depict the artists’ friends and families in tight, domestic spaces packed with competing patterns. Abandoning perspective (1998.412.1) and emphasizing surface texture, the paintings merge figure and ground (68.1) into a single plane so that discerning independent forms becomes a perceptual challenge.

The nineteenth-century decorative painters presage an important strain of twentieth-century art that looks to interior spaces and to artists’ internal thoughts and experiences as refuges from the modern world. For instance, the large water-lily paintings that Monet produced in his final decades share the Nabis’ desire to create all-encompassing environments that surround their viewers. Henri Matisse may be the true heir to this tradition, as he infused grand decoration with colorist abstraction to create a new style that belonged fully to his own historical moment.