The Nabis and the Decorative Arts

Bonnard to Vuillard: The Intimate Poetry of Everyday Life-The Nabi Collection of Vicki and Roger Sant (on view through January 26) demonstrates how the Nabis sought to break down the artificial barriers between the fine and decorative arts. Beyond painting and prints, the artist employed their aesthetic of flat colors, decorative patterning, and silhouetted forms on screens, wallpaper designs, tapestry, stained glass and more.

Pierre Bonnard, Stork and Four Frogs (Le Marabout et les Quatre Grenouilles), 1889, Three-panel screen, distemper on canvas, Each panel 62 3/4 x 21 1/2 in., overall 62 3/4 x 64 1/2 in., The Phillips Collection, Promised gift of Vicki and Roger Sant

This striking screen marks a major turning point in Pierre Bonnard’s adoption of the Nabi aesthetic. Just the year before, he had become one of the group’s founding members and a chief proponent of the group’s core belief in art as an extension of everyday life: “At that time I personally envisaged a popular art that was of everyday application: engravings, fans, furniture, screens.”

Bonnard’s choice of a bold vermilion ground and a palette of saturated, non-naturalistic colors owes a debt to the “magnificent example” of Paul Gauguin. Gauguin’s Vision of the Sermon (1888), which was shown in Paris earlier that year, left a lasting impression on Bonnard, who kept a postcard of it on his studio wall. Like many in the Nabis circle, Bonnard also found inspiration in Japanese art, especially 19th-century ukiyo-e prints. Bonnard later earned the moniker “le Nabi très japonard” (the very Japanese Nabis), and his screen bears the flat, unmodulated color, asymmetrical composition, and botanical motifs characteristic of Japanese art. Stork and Four Frogs is one of at least seven screens Bonnard made in the early years of his career.

Paul Ranson, Rabbits (Les Lapins), c. 1893, Design for wallpaper; distemper on paper, 23 5/8 x 29 1/2 in., The Phillips Collection, Promised gift of Vicki and Roger Sant

During the 1890s, wallpaper was in vogue as an interior design element, and wallpaper manufacturers turned to artists to develop appealing designs. Paul Ranson and Maurice Danis were among the Nabi painters who worked with wallpaper motifs. In 1893, Ranson received a commission from Arthur Sanderson & Sons, a major London wallpaper manufacturer and exporter.

The playful composition of Rabbits, featuring a trio of bunnies feasting on radishes, is one of several wallpaper designs painted by Ranson. In choosing the rabbit as his subject, Ranson followed the advice of art critic Charles Blanc, who spoke of the charm of painting objects in wallpaper that “we see every day—those things that we can easily recognize, such as flowers, fruit, familiar birds, domestic animals, and common plants.” Nevertheless the company must not have considered Ranson’s design marketable and never fabricated it into wallpaper.

Paul Ranson, Woman in Red or Woman with Cape (Femme en rouge or Femme à la cape), 1895, Needlepoint tapestry; wool on canvas, 59 x 39 3/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Promised gift of Vicki and Roger Sant

Woman in Red is one of several tapestries Paul Ranson made in the 1890s, a time when the medium enjoyed a revival in France as part of a larger embrace of the decorative arts within the official art salons. Ranson, like Aristide Maillol, became an enthusiastic practitioner of tapestry design, joining William Morris and other English artists who were leaders in the international Arts and Crafts movement of the late-19th- and early-20th century.

In this design, Ranson conjured out of a few sinuous lines and subtle, broad tones a standing female figure surrounded by a field of flowers, a subject common in medieval millefleurs tapestries. Ranson frequently depicted women in nature, finding the subject rich with mythological and biblical associations. His tapestries were shown in public and private galleries throughout the 1890s, with Woman in Red being featured most often.

Like his fellow Nabi artists, Ranson created the initial design for his tapestries, but did not fabricate them. In most instances, Ranson relied on the weaving skills of his wife, France. She was known for her coarse stitching, as seen in Woman in Red, which enlivens the surface with an undulating textural pattern.

Ker-Xavier Roussel, The Garden (Le Jardin), 1894 (executed 1895 by Tiffany and Co.), Stained glass; 48 7/8 x 36 5/8 in. The Phillips Collection, Promised gift of Vicki and Roger Sant

Made after a preparatory study or cartoon by Ker-Xavier Roussel, this window was one of 13 commissioned by German-born Paris-based dealer Siegfried Bing in collaboration with American designer Louis Comfort Tiffany. Bing conceived of the idea for the commission soon after his return from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where he admired a display of Tiffany’s stained-glass windows. Stained-glass design, revived from a grand tradition practiced by medieval guilds, provided a rich vehicle for the Nabi to reimagine their pictorial designs as light transmitted through color.

In addition to Roussel, Bing commissioned designs from other Nabi artists, including Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Henri-Gabriel Ibels, Paul Ranson, Paul Sérusier, Félix Vallotton, and Edouard Vuillard. Of the 13 commissioned windows, Roussel’s is one of only three surviving examples. Despite the valiant effort from Bing and Tiffany to introduce stained glass to the French market, the works met with mixed reviews and no further commissions followed.

The Nabis and Printmaking

Bonnard to Vuillard: The Intimate Poetry of Everyday Life-The Nabi Collection of Vicki and Roger Sant (on view through January 26) dives into the artists’ important contributions to the burgeoning field of color lithography. During the period of their close collaboration, they were widely celebrated for their graphic art. The careful process of transferring their sophisticated designs onto lithographic stones required a team of specialists at printing houses. This often included an artiste or dessinateur (draftsman) who translated the original work to the lithographic stone, a chromiste (color specialist) who honed the artist’s palette into a few colors and determined their order for printing, and an essayeur (proofer) who pulled test prints. The paper could vary from traditional French papers to imported Dutch laid papers to the Asian papers popular in Paris at the time.

The Nabis’ bold and inviting designs were much sought-after by commercial print shops, resulting in numerous commissions for posters, theater programs, sheet music covers, and illustrations in book and periodicals. These collaborations placed them at the center of the lively publishing explosion in Paris in the last decade of the 19th century. The exhibition Bonnard to Vuillard features two notable examples of Nabi print albums: L’Estampe originale and Paysages et Intérieurs.

L’Estampe originale, 1893
Complete set of 10 prints on handmade paper
Edition of 100; published by André Marty, printed by Delanchy, Ancourt et Cie

From 1893–1895, Parisian printer André Marty published an ambitious ninevolume series with no fewer than 95 prints by 74 artists in L’Estampe originale (The Original Print). To launch the series, Marty invited the Nabis and some of their associates to create the suite of 12 prints shown here. The color lithographs in L’Estampe originale were the most avant-garde and collectible prints of their day. The cover by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, not a member of the Nabis but very close to the circle, certainly increased the album’s desirability.

L’Estampe originale: Paul Ranson, Tiger in the Jungle (Tigre dans les jungles), 1893, Lithograph printed in three colors, 22 7/8 x 16 1/4 in., The Phillips Collection, Promised gift of Vicki and Roger Sant

L’Estampe originale: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Cover (Lithography [La Lithographie]), 1893, Lithograph printed in six colors 23 x 32 5/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Promised gift of Vicki and Roger Sant

L’Estampe originale: Ker-Xavier Roussel, In the Snow (Dans La Neige), 1893 Lithograph printed in four colors, 23 1/8 x 16 1/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Promised gift of Vicki and Roger Sant

Paysages et Intérieurs, 1899
Complete set of 13 color lithographs on China paper
Edition of 100; published by Ambroise Vollard, printed by Auguste Clot

In the latter 1890s, color lithography continued to flourish under the patronage of Paris dealer and publisher Ambroise Vollard and his master printer August Clot. In 1899, Vollard commissioned Vuillard to create a series of 12 vibrantly colored lithographs for the album Paysages et Interieurs (Landscapes and Interiors). The artist worked closely with Clot and expanded his use of color with techniques that may have been unique to Clot’s shop at the time. Prized for their aesthetic qualities and techniques, prints such as these helped elevate the status of color lithography in the 19th century to an artistic medium on par with painting on canvas.

Paysages et Intérieurs: Édouard Vuillard, On the Pont de l’Europe (Sur le Point de l’Europe), 1899, Lithograph printed in four colors, 13 1/8 x 15 1/2 in., The Phillips Collection, Promised gift of Vicki and Roger Sant

Paysages et Intérieurs: Édouard Vuillard, The Pastry Shop (La Patisserie), 1899, Lithograph printed in seven colors, 15 3/4 x 12 3/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Promised gift of Vicki and Roger Sant

Paysages et Intérieurs: Édouard Vuillard, Interior with Pink Wallpaper I (Intérieur aux Tentures Roses I), 1899, Lithograph printed in five colors, 15 3/8 x 12 1/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Promised gift of Vicki and Roger Sant

Music, Symbolism, and Les Nabis

Between November 2019 and January 2020, Phillips Music presented three concerts exploring the interrelationships between music and art in the period of the Nabis as part of the exhibition Bonnard to Vuillard: The Intimate Poetry of Everyday Life—The Nabi Collection of Vicki and Roger Sant (on view through January 26). Ahead of the last of these performances on Sunday, January 12, featuring resident musicians from the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel in Belgium, Director of Music Jeremy Ney reflects on some of the cross-disciplinary currents that united visual artists and musicians in the late 19th century.  

“Think…of the musical role color will henceforth play in modern painting. Color, which is vibration just as music is, is able to attain what is most universal yet at the time most elusive in nature: its inner force.”—Paul Gauguin, 1899

In 1884, Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine made a curious statement about the future of poetry in his publication L’art poetique. He wrote that poetry should seek to become “music before all else” (“De la musique avant toute chose”). This seemingly radical idea compelled the artists of his generation to look to the example of music for the formulation of new aesthetic directions for art. If it seems unusual that Verlaine would seek to devolve his art form from its own resources in the search of something completely new, his talismanic statement on the value of music for all art was, by the 1880s, surprisingly a rather commonplace idea. Baudelaire, under the influence of Wagner’s music, had opened the flood gates in the 1850s through the concept of synesthesia and correspondence between the arts, emphasizing the value of music for its non-imitative, abstract capacity. Before this, artist Eugene Delacroix discussed his paintings in musical terms as early as 1824. Coining the idea of the “musicality” of painting, Delacroix used the example of music to show how a work of art could transcend imitation to achieve a higher aesthetic goal.

Influenced by Baudelaire and Delacroix, Paul Gauguin sought to infuse painting with the powerfully affective, mysterious aura of music, suggesting that in painting, “ultimately we should look more for suggestion than description, as with music.” Gauguin also espoused rational, scientific parallels, describing color as “vibration, just like music,” unifying an idea prevalent in the Renaissance (the Pythagorean theory of the Harmony of the Spheres, that mathematical intervals linked musical sounds with the divine) with new concepts about the science of color; that colors could be arranged in scales with “consonant” and “dissonant” harmonies (foreshadowing the color theories of painter Wassily Kandinsky, or the musical color wheels of composer Alexander Scriabin). As Gauguin sought to move beyond traditional figuration into what he described as “mysterious centers of thought,” it was the example of music—both for its vagueness and mystery as well as its scientific, rational properties—that helped free painting from the strictures of representation, supporting a trajectory that would lead, ultimately, to abstraction.

Gauguin’s ideas and teachings were hugely influential to the artists of the Nabis. Vuillard, Denis, Bonnard, and other painters of the Nabis adopted Gauguin’s ideas of the sensory and emotive capacities of color and form, and their wider intellectual engagement with literary symbolism (through the writings of Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and Verlaine) meant that they also fully absorbed the principles of correspondence, synesthesia, and the musicality of painting. Of all the members of the group, Maurice Denis was the most profoundly influenced by music and musicians. Denis’s understanding of music informed his theoretical writings (notably in his influential treatise of 1890, Définition de néo-traditionnisme), and he established close links with the musical milieu of his time. He was friends with Claude Debussy, collaborating with the composer on lithographic covers for his scores, and he was close with the circle of devotees surrounding César Franck, particularly Ernest Chausson, with whom Denis formed a close personal friendship. Intellectually, Denis was aligned to the Franck school’s guiding principles of la musique construite, and the desire to liberate French music from the accreted excesses of late-German romanticism by re-introducing the order and structure of forms drawn from renaissance and early-classical music. In his theoretical writings, Denis articulated a parallel ambition for painting and the decorative arts, hoping to orientate the Nabi group toward a revived classicism.

Compared to other members of the Nabis, Denis had a much deeper grasp of music, and while others may have subscribed to the general concept of music as abstract, suggestive, mysterious, or atmospheric (profoundly Symbolist qualities), Denis saw in music more formal ideas and structures that could be recognized to have analogous relationships to new techniques in painting. Denis’s highly distinctive musical tendencies are well-evidenced by his painting Les Musicians, on view in the exhibition.

Maurice Denis, Les Musicians, c. 1895. Oil on cardboard, 9 5/8 x 13 5/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Promised gift of Vicki and Roger Sant.

Nominally representational in the sense that we see four figures around a piano in the act of music-making, the painting is notable for its abstraction. Facial features are withdrawn, and sheet music is emptied of its symbols of notation. The painting instead holds the suggestion of music, the aura of its imminence. Denis deliberately draws our attention to the materiality of the line, the “rhythmic” contours of decorative Arabesques, which become the visual equivalent of an elapsing “melody” within the composition, with a concurrent “harmony” and “sonority” in the surrounding colors. If such heuristic devices feel nothing more than confused metaphors for us today, they were anything but to Denis and other creative artists in the period of the Nabis. However, the correspondences, parallels, and associations espoused by artists of this time should not be taken too literally; neither the painters of the Nabis nor the composers of the period desired a musical-visual equivalence—a transposition from one art form into another (which they saw as mere empty formalism)—but rather the burgeoning period of artistic exchange in the 1880s and 1890s provided artists and composers with the intellectual basis with which to borrow resources, concepts, or material means from different artistic domains.

This Sunday’s program, conceived in partnership with the Queen Elisabeth Music Chapel and its resident musicians, presents a special confluence of currents within fin de siècle art and music. The spirit of the program is embodied—to some degree—by a single, revolutionary figure: Belgian violinist and composer Eugène Ysaÿe. Ysaÿe was a prominent musician in the cultural milieu of the late 19th century and the pre-eminent virtuoso of his age. A champion of new music, Ysaÿe was aligned with the Franck school, and he regularly toured music by Franck, D’Indy, Chausson as well as Debussy (frequently in concert with the music of Bach) internationally as talismans of French cultural export (both Franck and Ysaÿe were Belgian natives who became naturalized French citizens). As a musician, Ysaÿe came to embody 19th-century perceptions of the transcendent power and mystery of music, and in this heady period of synesthetic connection, Ysaÿe’s performances were often interpreted in lofty, poetic terms. Following a performance at Auguste Rodin’s atelier in Paris, French author Camille Mauclair described the violinist as a “living Rodin” in his novel La Ville Lumiere, thus transfiguring Ysaÿe into the solidified permanence of a museum piece.

The exchange went both ways, and Ysaÿe took an active interest in other art forms himself. In 1894, he programmed a series of four concerts with the Ysaÿe Quartet at the Musée de l’Art Modern in Brussels during an exhibition curated by Octave Maus titled La Libre Esthétique (The Free Aesthetic). Ysaÿe created an ambitious series of concerts that were ideologically aligned to the “Franckistes.” The second concert featured an all-Debussy program in which the String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10 received its second performance (the premiere had taken place at the Société Nationale in Paris in 1893). The final performance presented Chausson’s Concert for Violin, Piano, and String Quartet in D Major, Op. 21. Hanging in the galleries as these works were heard were paintings by Paul Gauguin, Maurice Denis, Odilon Redon, Paul Sérusier, Paul Ranson, and many other artists of the Symbolist milieu. This Sunday’s concert thus presents an irresistible opportunity to hear some of the music that was most alive to the cross-disciplinary artistic spirit of the time.

—Jeremy Ney, Director of Music