Félix Vallotton  

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Self-Portrait at the Age of Twenty (1885) by Félix Vallotton
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Self-Portrait at the Age of Twenty (1885) by Félix Vallotton

"He depicted domestic dramas, street crowds, demonstrations—including several scenes of police attacking anarchists—bathing women, portrait heads, and other subjects which he treated with a sardonic humor."--Sholem Stein


"He was a gentle soul, Valloton, with a keen wit and a great deal of ambition but a feeling of impotence, the result of being the brother-in-law of picture dealers."--The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) by Gertrude Stein

A Th. Dostoiewski (1895) by Félix Vallotton
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A Th. Dostoiewski (1895) by Félix Vallotton
The Anarchist (1892) by Félix Vallotton
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The Anarchist (1892) by Félix Vallotton
Imaginary portrait of Lautréamont by Félix Vallotton
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Imaginary portrait of Lautréamont by Félix Vallotton

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Félix Vallotton (1865 - 1925) was a Swiss painter and printmaker associated with the group of artists known as Les Nabis. He was an important figure in the development of the modern woodcut. He painted portraits, landscapes, nudes, still lifes, and other subjects in an unemotional, realistic style.

His earliest paintings were influenced by Holbein and Ingres. He developed a simpler style during his association with Les Nabis during the 1890s, and produced woodcuts which brought him international recognition. Characterized by broad masses of black and white with minimal detail, they include street scenes, bathers, portraits, and a series of ten interiors titled Intimités (Intimacies) that portray charged domestic encounters between men and women. He produced few prints after 1901, and concentrated instead on painting. His later paintings include highly finished portraits and nudes, and landscapes painted from memory.

He was also active as a writer. He published art criticism during the 1890s, and his novel La Vie meurtrière (The Murderous Life) was published posthumously.

Biography and career

He was born into a conservative middle class family in Lausanne, and there he attended Collège Cantonal, graduating with a degree in classical studies in 1882. In that year he moved to Paris to study art under Jules Joseph Lefebvre and Gustave Boulanger at the Académie Julian. He spent many hours in the Louvre, where he greatly admired the works of Holbein, Durer and Ingres; these artists would remain exemplars for Vallotton throughout his life. His earliest paintings, such as the Ingresque Portrait of Monsieur Ursenbach (1885), are firmly rooted in the academic tradition, and his self portrait The Painter at Twenty received an honorable mention at the Paris Salon of 1886.

During the following decade Vallotton painted, wrote art criticism and made a number of prints. In 1891 he executed his first woodcut, a portrait of Paul Verlaine. The many woodcuts he produced during the 1890s were widely disseminated in periodicals and books in Europe as well as in the United States, and were recognized as radically innovative in printmaking. They established Vallotton as a leader in the revival of true woodcut as an artistic medium; in the western world, the relief print, in the form of commercial wood engraving, had long been mainly utilized unimaginatively as a medium for the reproduction of drawn or painted images and, latterly, photographs.

Vallotton's starkly reductive woodcut style features large masses of undifferentiated black and areas of unmodulated white. While emphasizing outline and flat patterns, Vallotton generally had no use for the gradations and modeling traditionally produced by hatching. The influences of post-Impressionism, symbolism and the Japanese woodcut are apparent; a large exhibition of ukiyo-e prints had been presented at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1890, and Vallotton, like many artists of his era an enthusiast of Japonism, collected these prints. He depicted domestic dramas, street crowds, demonstrations—including several scenes of police attacking anarchists—bathing women, portrait heads, and other subjects which he treated with a sardonic humor. These prints have been suggested as a significant influence on the graphic art of Edvard Munch, Aubrey Beardsley, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. His last woodcuts were the series, This is War, of 1915.

By 1892 he was affiliated with Les Nabis, a group of young artists that included Pierre Bonnard, Ker-Xavier Roussel, Maurice Denis, and Edouard Vuillard, with whom Vallotton was to form a lifelong friendship. During the 1890s, when Vallotton was closely allied with the avant-garde, his paintings reflected the style of his woodcuts, with flat areas of color, hard edges, and simplification of detail. His subjects included genre scenes, portraits and nudes. Examples of his Nabi style are the deliberately awkward Bathers on a Summer Evening (1892-93), now in the Kunsthaus Zürich, and the symbolist Moonlight (1895), in the Musée d'Orsay.

Around 1899 his printmaking activity diminished as he concentrated on painting, developing a sober, often bitter realism independently of the artistic mainstream. His Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1907) was painted as an apparent response to Picasso's portrait of the previous year, and in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas Stein described the very methodical way in which Vallotton painted it, working from top to bottom as if lowering a curtain across the canvas.

Vallotton's paintings of the post-Nabi period found admirers, and were generally respected for their truthfulness and their technical qualities, but the severity of his style was frequently criticized. Typical is the reaction of the critic in the March 23 1910 issue of Neue Zürcher Zeitung who complained that Vallotton "paints like a policeman, like someone whose job it is to catch forms and colors. Everything creaks with an intolerable dryness...the colors lack all joyfulness." In its uncompromising character his art prefigured the New Objectivity that flourished in Germany during the 1920s, and has a further parallel in the work of Edward Hopper.

He continued to publish occasional art criticism, in addition to other writings. He wrote eight plays, some of which received performances (in 1904 and 1907), although their reviews appear to have been unfavorable. He also wrote three novels, including the semi-autobiographical La Vie meurtrière (The Murderous Life), begun in 1907 and published posthumously.

In his last years Félix Vallotton concentrated especially on still lifes and on "composite landscapes", landscapes composed in the studio from memory and imagination. He died on the day after his 60th birthday, following cancer surgery in Paris in 1925.

His brother Paul was an art dealer; he founded the Galerie Paul Vallotton in Lausanne in 1922, which continued operation for many years under the control of his descendants.

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