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Monday, April 25, 2016

Felix Vallotton

Landscape of Ruins and Fires, 1914. Felix Vallotton
It's hard for a young artist to guess the ultimate direction of his or her career; how their work will be treated by critics, the buying public, and art connoisseurs both during, and especially after their lifetime. Part of this is sheer serendipity. Much has to do with critical decisions artists make as to where they live, their marriage (singular or plural), the friends they make, people they encounter, and causes they embrace. It has to do with world events as well--wars, economic disasters, political upheavals, and most of all how the artists react to all these things. It has to do with their health as well, personal habits, and general demeanor. All of these things are quite apart from the artist's actual creative output, their style, their choice of media, the quantity and quality of their work, and their knack for self-promotion. Some elements the artist has a modicum of control over, but they are all intermingled to such a degree as to cause the artist's legacy to be, not totally, but virtually unpredictable. That could certainly be the case with the Swiss-French painter, Felix Vallotton.
Felix Vallotton, age twenty (top-left), to sixty (bottom-right).
Felix Edouard Vallotton was born into a conservative, middle-class family in Lausanne, (western Switzerland) where he attended Collège Cantonal, graduating with a degree in classical studies in 1882 at the age of seventeen. Though obviously a "quick study," there is nothing in that to suggest the man would become well-known, or even that he would become an artist. The best that could be said was that his formal education put him good stead for his decision that same year to move to Paris and study to be an artist. He landed at the Academie Julian under the watchful eyes of Jules Joseph Lefebvre and Gustave Boulanger. The former was a better painter than he was an instructor; the latter just the opposite; both nonetheless steeped in the traditional academic straight-jacket worn by the vast majority of French artist of their era. Actually, Vallotton probably spent more hours in the Louvre, studying the old masters, especially Holbein, Durer, and Ingres, than he did in class.

Portrait of Monsieur Ursenbach, 1885, Felix Vallotton
In any case, after a mere three years of study, in 1885, at the tender age of twenty, Vallotton painted two portraits, the first of himself (above, top-left), the second a Portrait of Monsieur Ursenbach (above). Both are outstanding, not just for a young art student, but as compared to the work of virtually any portrait artist working in Paris at the time. Vallotton's self-portrait received an honorable mention at the Paris Salon of 1886. Judging by such prodigious talent and critical acclaim, one might guess the young man to be well on his way to a long and prosperous career as a leading Paris portrait artist. One would be wrong. Oh, he was modestly successful in the years following his initial studies at Julian, but mostly he lived by writing as an art critic and teaching classes.

The Patient, 1892, Felix Vallotton
Portrait of Paul Verlaine
(woodcut), 1891, Felix Vallotton
Then, in 1891, Felix Vallotton made his first woodcut, a Portrait of Paul Verlaine (left). Even though he was an accomplished artist with a brush, as seen in the genre painting The Patient (above), from 1892, Vallotton quickly decided he loved etching grooves in wood more than daubing oils on canvas. In the western world, the relief print, in the form of commercial wood engraving, had long been utilized mainly as a means to accurately reproduce drawings, painted images, and, by Vallotton's time, photographs. Vallotton's woodcut style was unique in its starkly reductive opposition of large masses of undifferentiated black and areas of unmodulated white. Vallotton emphasized outline and flat patterns, generally eliminating the gradations and modeling traditionally produced by cross-hatching. He was influenced by post-Impressionism, Symbolism, and especially by Japanese woodcuts.

Vallotton did woodcut images of virtually all the major artists, writers, and thinkers of his day.
For a single decade at the end of the 19th-century Félix Vallotton became famous, not as a painter (Paris was overflowing with painters at the time), but above all else as a print maker. Vallotton’s bold approach to the woodcut is credited by many art historians of his time, and still today, as having modernized and revitalized the art form in the Western world. Vallotton's woodcut subjects included domestic scenes, bathing women, portrait heads (above), and images of street crowds; most notably, scenes of police attacking anarchists. He usually depicted types rather than individuals, eschewed the expression of strong emotion, blending graphic wit with an acerbic, ironic sense of humor. His La Paresse (below), from 1896, is an interesting example.

La Paresse  (which translates as Laziness), 1896, Felix Vallotton
Portrait de Gabrielle Vallotton,
1908, Felix Vallotton
Vallotton's woodcuts were widely published in books and periodicals all over Europe as well as the United States, and are said to have been a significant influence on the graphic art of Edvard Munch, Aubrey Beardsley, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Around 1892 Vallotton became affiliated with Les Nabis, a group of young artists that included among others, Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, and Édouard Vuillard. 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. In 1899 Vallotton married an attractive, wealthy widow with three children, Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriquez (left), thus enabling him to obtained French citizenship. About the same time, no longer obliged to eke out a livelihood at printmaking Vallotton began to once more concentrated on painting, developing a sober, often bitter realism independent of the artistic mainstream. His Portrait of Gertrude Stein (top-right in the group below) dates from 1907 and was painted as an apparent response to Picasso's portrait of her the previous year. Vallotton is said to have started at the top and methodically worked his way to the bottom in painting it.

The Artist's Wife (top-left), Gertrude Stein (top-right), the Nabis painters, Bonnard, Vuillard,
Roussel, Cottet and Vallotton, from 1902, (midway down on the left), Emile Zola from 1909
(lower-right), and the artist's parents (bottom-left).
Vallotton responded to the coming of war in Europe in 1914 by volunteering for the French army, though by that time almost fifty years of age, he was rejected. Eventually he did make it to the Champagne front in 1917, on a commission from the Ministry of Fine Arts. The sketches he produced became the basis for a group of paintings not unlike an earlier work, Landscape of Ruins and Fires (top), dating from 1914. After the war, In his final years of his life, Vallotton concentrated especially on still lifes (below). He died in 1925 on the day after his 60th birthday, following cancer surgery in Paris. Vallotton was a highly prolific artist. By the time of his death, he had completed over 1700 paintings and about 200 prints, in addition to hundreds of drawings and several sculptures. Yet, despite the lopsided numbers, Vallotton's legacy finds him most remembered for his woodcut prints rather than his paintings.

Virtually all of Vallotton's still-lifes involved food.
Sunset, 1925, Felix Vallotton--his final painting.

Self-portrait profile (woodcut),
1895, Felix Vallotton


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