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Private Lives

Intimate views of home and family in 19th-century Paris
Heather Lemonedes Brown, Virginia N. and Randall J. Barbato Deputy Director and Chief Curator
August 24, 2021

The Checkered Blouse (Madame Claude Terrasse at Age 20) 1892. Pierre Bonnard (French, 1867–1947). Oil on canvas; 61 x 33 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, RF1977-89. Photo: Hervé Lewandowski. © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY. © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

During the pandemic, people have been at home more than ever before, so a show of around 160 domestic-themed paintings by French masters is timely indeed. This exhibition looks at the work of the four most famous artists in the group known as the Nabis: Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis, and Félix Vallotton. All were inspired by Paul Gauguin, but took their own approach to complex and colorful interior scenes. And as Vallotton’s uneasy picture The Lie demonstrates, home life may be rich, but it is often complicated too.

—Ted Loos, The New York Times

In 1889, a group of young, avant-garde artists in Paris formed a brotherhood to promote a radical new direction in art. Adopting the name Nabis—Hebrew for “prophets”—they aimed to capture subjective experience and emotion in their paintings and works on paper. The exhibition Private Lives: Home and Family in the Art of the Nabis, Paris, 1889–1900 focuses 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). The Nabis were Post-Impressionists and part of the movement of Symbolism in the late 1880s and 1890s—which also influenced literature, music, and theater—that shifted away from portraying the fleeting effects of nature toward a more emotive perception of the world. 

Although their styles varied, each of the four artists in Private Lives brought a fresh look at everyday life and the people closest to them. The Nabis were dubbed the “generation of intimists” for their ability to coax meaning and emotion from humble subjects. For Bonnard and Denis, themes of daily life were ideal for depicting what Bonnard called the small pleasures and “modest acts of life”; Vallotton and Vuillard, however, hinted at the tensions simmering below the surface of family interactions. Their art was both of the home and for the home; their domestically scaled works were intended to be lived with, enabling the viewer to revisit a single moment laden with feeling and memory.

The exhibition is organized into five sections: Intimate and Troubled Interiors, Family Life, Music in the Home, Domestic Gardens, and the Nabi City. In late 19th-century Paris, the domestic interior was considered the cradle of the family, a safe harbor in a dynamic city that was increasingly defined by industry and spectacle. The hearth and lamp became powerful symbols of the enclosed world of family life. More than a physical space, the interior was also a psychological realm of thought, feeling, and sentiment. It was a place for introspection, where one could escape into imaginative worlds of poetry, literature, or fine art.

The first two galleries of Private Lives explore domestic interiors and the lives that unfolded therein. Intergenerational scenes of families dining by lamplight by Bonnard and Vuillard greet visitors at the entrance. Also included are images that explore work in the home; a particular focus is Vuillard’s scenes of his mother and sister working alongside paid seamstresses in his mother’s corset- and dressmaking business that operated out of the Vuillard family apartment. This section also explores views by Bonnard and Denis depicting the unpaid domestic labor of wives and mothers. Leisure activities in the home, such as collecting limited-edition prints, playing checkers, and flower arranging, are subjects of paintings and works on paper by Bonnard, Vuillard, and Denis. These cozy domestic scenes are juxtaposed with paintings and prints by Vuillard that suggest familial unease and by Vallotton that hint at secrets and bourgeois adultery. By evoking both the joy and the tensions of interior life, the Nabis invite us to explore, in the words of one critic, “the tragedy and mystery of daily life.” 

Romantic love, marriage, and children were essential subjects for the Nabis. Inspired by his devotion to Marthe Meurier, whom he married in 1893, Denis made a suite of 12 lithographs plus a cover, Love, in 1899 that record the artist’s memories of the couple’s courtship. The section Family Life also includes a group of whimsical birth announcements made by Denis and Bonnard for their families and friends. Printed in small editions, such works are rare today. Denis celebrated maternity in a series of paintings depicting his wife with their infant children, simultaneously presenting her as a Madonna and a modern mother, bathing, feeding, and playing with her children.

Bonnard was delighted by the births of his sister’s children; they were frequent subjects of his art and inspired a number of his most daring color lithographs of the 1890s. Like Bonnard, Vuillard was himself childless, but he too was deeply affected by his sister’s children. Vuillard frequently painted his niece, Annette Roussel, typically in the company of her mother or grandmother. Particularly when depicting children, Bonnard and Vuillard adopted a willfully naive style, deliberately distorting forms and eliminating perspective. Private Lives shows the essential role that children played in Nabi art—and in the development of the artists’ avant-garde styles—during the 1890s. 

Music played a crucial role in the Nabi aesthetic from the time of the group’s inception. They were inspired by music, the most abstract of the arts, and believed that painting—like music—could elicit an emotional response through the careful arrangement of color and form. Music surrounded the Nabis in their private lives and domestic interiors. Vallotton’s wife, Gabrielle, played the piano, as did Vuillard’s mother. Denis’s wife, Marthe, and her sister, Éva, were accomplished musicians. Bonnard’s sister, Andrée, was a talented pianist, and her husband was a composer of some renown. Music appeared regularly in the Nabis’ art. Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis, and Vallotton all depicted women at the piano in their paintings and prints. Music was played not only by women in the home; Vallotton created a suite of six woodcuts depicting solitary male musicians in domestic interiors playing the violin, cello, flute, and other instruments, each shown in a moment of reverie. 

The Cello from Musical Instruments 1896. Félix Vallotton (Swiss, 1865–1925). Woodcut; image: 22.4 x 17.8 cm; sheet: 32.4 x 25.1 cm. Portland Art Museum, Museum Purchase: Funds provided by Amanda Snyder Purchase Fund and Ann Flowerree, 2020.21.1

Music also prompted more playful artistic creativity among the Nabis. Bonnard illustrated a musical primer for children, Le Petit solfège illustré(Little Illustrated Solfeggio), written by his brother-in-law, Claude Terrasse. Private Lives brings together more than a dozen of Bonnard’s preparatory drawings for the book, which was published with lithographic illustrations in 1893. Visitors will have the opportunity to hear a new recording of songs by Terrasse from his collection Petites scènes familières (Familiar Little Scenes), as performed by Russian pianist Arseniy Gusev, a student at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

The Reflection in the Fountain 1897. Maurice Denis (French, 1870–1943). Color lithograph; image: 40.6 x 24.8 cm; sheet: 56.8 x 42.5 cm. Portland Art Museum, Museum Purchase: Jean Y. Roth Memorial Fund, 2016.5.1. © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Gardening for pleasure and recreation grew in popularity among the rising middle class during the 1800s. Not only were green, outdoor spaces considered decorative and pleasing to the eye, they were believed to benefit physical and emotional health. The Nabis grew up at a time during which domestic gardens were an essential aspect of homelife. The Bonnard family’s country home, Le Clos (The Orchard) in Le Grand-Lemps in the Dauphiné, provided not only a refuge for the artist but also a rich source of subject matter for his art. There, the garden was an extension of the house, where family life merged with nature. Family pets—particularly dogs—were key players in such recreational scenes, and seemed to inspire Bonnard’s most innovative ways of painting, as seen in works such as Women with a Dog (1891). Denis’s garden in Saint-Germain-en-Laye was one of the artist’s favorite settings for compositions that featured his wife and children. Within his oeuvre, gardens are laden with spiritual significance; the protected space of the cultivated garden was a place of peace and innocence, and simultaneously a place for familial bonding. Although the urbanite Vuillard never owned a pastoral retreat, his friends’ gardens appeared in his art throughout his career. The Nabis’ depictions of gardens brought the natural world indoors, knitting the green spaces of nature into the fabric of the interior.

The Painter KerXavier Roussel and His Daughter 1903. Édouard Vuillard (French, 1868–1940). Oil on cardboard; 58.1 x 54.4 cm. Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, Room of Contemporary Art Fund, 1943, RCA1943:17. Image courtesy AlbrightKnox Art Gallery. © 2021 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

The exhibition concludes with a gallery exploring the theme of the city within the art of Bonnard and Vuillard. Despite their predilection for interiors, both artists engaged in the life of Paris, but in a manner that was distinct from their Impressionist predecessors and contemporaries. Bonnard and Vuillard “domesticized” the city, depicting its small corners, narrow streets, and parks—places where family life continued outside the walls of the apartment. Both artists frequently portrayed the metropolis from a child’s perspective, describing the city in gray tones and its youngest inhabitants in vibrant color. Public parks, where children stroll with mothers and nannies, were also favorite subjects for the two artists. Bonnard’s and Vuillard’s city views humanize Paris, suggesting intimate moments in the private lives of its anonymous inhabitants. 

Although the planning for Private Lives began in 2016, the exhibition and the theme of home and family are particularly poignant, as we have spent more time at home in the company of our families and pets during the pandemic. When you visit Private Lives, we hope that you discover parallels with your own life in the Nabis’ paintings, prints, and drawings.