Friday June 18, 2021
Tags for: The Cleveland Museum of Art Presents “Private Lives: Home and Family in the Art of the Nabis, Paris, 1889–1900”
  • Press Release

The Cleveland Museum of Art Presents “Private Lives: Home and Family in the Art of the Nabis, Paris, 1889–1900”

exterior of the CMA building

Major international loan exhibition explores for the first time intimate depictions of home and family life by four artists of the Post-Impressionist Nabi brotherhood

Cleveland (June 18, 2021) – In 1889, a small group of avant-garde artists in Paris formed a brotherhood to promote a radical new direction in art. Adopting the name Nabis—Hebrew for “prophets”—they shifted away from the Impressionist style, which sought to capture the fleeting effects of nature, and instead aimed to depict subjective experience and emotion in their paintings, prints and drawings. Private Lives: Home and Family in the Art of the Nabis, Paris, 1889–1900 is the first exhibition to focus on intimate views of home and family by four Nabi artists: Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947), Maurice Denis (1870–1943), Félix Vallotton (1865–1925) and Édouard Vuillard (1868–1940). Loans from museums including the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC; the Museum of Modern Art, NYC; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Musée d’Orsay, Paris; the Petit Palais, Paris; the National Gallery of Ireland; and the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, as well as private collections in the US and Europe, will enrich the exhibition. More than 40 paintings and 110 works on paper will be included in the show.

Private Lives: Home and Family in the Art of the Nabis, Paris, 1889–1900 is organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) and the Portland Art Museum. It is on view at the CMA from July 1 to September 19, 2021, in the Kelvin and Eleanor Smith Foundation Exhibition Hall.

Private Lives is our first major international loan exhibition since the pandemic began,” said William M. Griswold, director of the CMA. “It explores the humble subjects that resonated most with four important Post-Impressionist artists: quiet interiors, family, scenes of children and pets playing in gardens and parks and Paris city life.”

Private Lives examines depictions of home, family and children, or what Bonnard referred to as the small pleasures and “modest acts of life.” Throughout their formative years in the 1890s, these four artists were deeply entwined in each other’s lives; Bonnard, Vuillard and Denis shared a studio, and Swiss-born Vallotton became a close associate of all three. Although their styles varied, each returned repeatedly to the motifs of homelife, romantic love and family. The Nabis’ art was both of the home and for the home; their domestically scaled works of art were intended to be lived with, enabling the viewer to revisit a single moment laden with emotion and memory.

The domestic world was not always what it seemed; suppressed secrets, hidden affairs and familial tension lie beneath the surface, challenging the viewer to construct the unspoken narrative of these small but powerful images. Glimpses of close family life can simultaneously suggest claustrophobic confinement and unease. The artists depicted their family and friends, but often abstracted or obscured their loved ones so that they were recognizable to only a few viewers. Although the Nabis referenced their own private lives, their art ultimately suggests depths of feeling, memory, nostalgia, joy and melancholy that are universal.

“Domestic life is at the core of the Nabis’ worldview, and Private Lives delves deeply into this subject as the artists’ source of inspiration,” said Heather Lemonedes Brown, the Virginia N. and Randall J. Barbato Deputy Director and Chief Curator. “To these four Post-Impressionists, emotion and subjective experience were more important than verisimilitude. The exhibition prompts visitors to interpret the works of art and draw their own conclusions.”

The exhibition consists of five sections that take viewers through the themes of the artists’ work.

  • The Intimate Interior / The Troubled Interior

    Nabi interiors are celebrated for their intimate views of domestic comforts, but these artists used the same signifiers of cozy life—snug salons, lamplit activities and animated wallpaper—to hint at the discontents simmering below the surface. Portraits are generalized to the point of anonymity, impassable flatness and pattern block the visual penetration of the rooms and figures emerge from and disappear in the shadows. Artful distortions of scale keep the viewer off-balance, while ambiguity invites completion of the narrative.

  • Family Life

    Family life occupied a central role in the Nabis’ art. Their imagery depicting families allowed them to explore romantic love, maternal affection and the joys of childhood. But far from being a sentimental retreat for the artists, these images of family life also offered an opportunity to examine nuance, conflict and grief.

  • Music chez soi

    Music and musicality played a crucial role in the Nabi aesthetic from the time of the group’s inception. In the late 1800s, music and painting were often considered sister arts, both evoking emotions through harmony, rhythm and form. Each artist in this exhibition depicted music in the home, expressing a wide variety of moods and emotions, ranging from the refined musical soirée captured by Vallotton in The Symphony to Bonnard’s playful designs for a children’s music primer to Vuillard’s contemplative portrayal of Misia Natanson at the piano.

    Selections from composer Claude Terrasse’s Petites scènes familières (Familiar Little Scenes) performed by pianist and composer Arseniy Gusev can be heard in this gallery. In 1895, Terrasse published a suite of piano compositions illustrated with lithographs by his brother-in-law, Bonnard, to suggest the mood for each song, ranging from lively to melancholic.

  • In the Garden

    The garden played an important role in the personal lives and the art of Bonnard, Denis and Vuillard. The orchard and gardens of Le Clos (the Orchard), the Bonnard family home in Le Grand-Lemps in southeastern France, were a retreat and regular subject for the artist throughout his Nabi years. Denis frequently turned to the garden at his home in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, northwest of Paris, as a theme in his art. Although the urbanite Vuillard never had his own garden, he painted those of his friends. Nabi gardens were outdoor living spaces inhabited by family, friends and pets.

  • The Nabi City

    The Nabi artists were deeply invested in depicting family life in domestic interiors and private gardens. However, the city of Paris appeared frequently in the work of Bonnard and Vuillard during the 1890s. The art in this gallery reflects the artists’ aims to establish a dialogue between public and private life, to domesticize the glittering City of Lights and to bring the city into the realm of the home.

Exhibition Catalogue

Private Lives is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue written by co-curators Heather Lemonedes Brown, the Virginia N. and Randall J. Barbato Deputy Director and Chief Curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and Mary Weaver Chapin, curator of prints and drawings at the Portland Art Museum.

It features essays and vignettes by leading historians and art historians that offer insight into the private worlds of the Nabis: Francesca Berry of the University of Birmingham interrogates the Nabis and gender roles; Kathleen Kete of Trinity College, CT, reveals the importance of pets to private life in 19th-century France; Saskia Ooms of the Musée Montmartre describes the role of the camera in the personal world of these artists; and Francesca Brittan of Case Western Reserve University illuminates the centrality of music in constructing the bourgeois family home.

Private Lives: Home and Family in the Art of the Nabis, Paris, 1889–1900 is published by the CMA and Yale University Press. It’s available for purchase online or at the Cleveland Museum of Art store for $65 (hardcover).

Member Preview Day

Members see it FIRST and for FREE!

Members can view Private Lives first on Member Preview Day, June 30, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Join today and reserve free tickets at

Become a Member

See Private Lives: Home and Family in the Art of the Nabis, Paris, 1889–1900 for free when you become a CMA member. Members are admitted free to most special exhibitions. Additionally, members enjoy other special discounts and exclusive events throughout the year.

Join the Conversation

Visit the CMA on social media to find a new opportunity each week to remix and reinterpret one work of art from the exhibition. The museum encourages visitors to share their small pleasures—a day in the sun, a moment with a pet or their favorite hat. Each week, a winner will be chosen to receive two tickets to the exhibition and a café voucher. Look for the weekly artwork and prompt to participate.

Follow the CMA on social media: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.


Tickets are on sale now!

CMA members free; adults $15; seniors and adult groups $10; students and children ages 6 to 17 $8; children under 5 free.

Tickets can be reserved online at, at the box office or by calling 216-421-7350.

Complementary Programming

The Cleveland Museum of Art is currently open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The museum is closed Mondays. Beginning June 30, the museum will resume extended hours Wednesdays and Fridays, remaining open until 9 p.m.

The exhibition is organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Portland Art Museum.

Major support is provided by Gertrude Kalnow Chisholm and Homer D. W. Chisholm and the Florence Gould Foundation. Additional support is provided by Anne H. Weil. Generous support is provided by an anonymous supporter and by Sandra and Richey Smith.

The exhibition catalogue for Private Lives: Home and Family in the Art of the Nabis, Paris, 1889–1900 was produced with the support of the FRench American Museum Exchange (FRAME).

All exhibitions at the Cleveland Museum of Art are underwritten by the CMA Fund for Exhibitions. Major annual support is provided by the Estate of Dolores B. Comey and Bill and Joyce Litzler, with generous annual funding from Mr. and Mrs. Walter R. Chapman Jr., the Jeffery Wallace Ellis Trust in memory of Lloyd H. Ellis Jr., Ms. Arlene Monroe Holden, Eva and Rudolf Linnebach, William S. and Margaret F. Lipscomb, Tim O’Brien and Breck Platner, the Womens Council of the Cleveland Museum of Art, and Claudia Woods and David Osage.

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(216) 707-2261