Greatly admired in his native Switzerland, Felix Vallotton (1865–1925) is less well-known elsewhere until now. The Royal Academy’s exhibition entitled A Painter of Disquiet brings around 100 of his works from public and private collections across Europe and the U.S to London and there is certainly a disquieting edge to this remarkable artist's paintings.
In Paris in the late nineteenth century he mixed with a bohemian set, which immodestly referred to themselves as the Nabis (Prophets). He worked for La Revue blanche founded by the Natanson brothers and associated with the likes of Marcel Proust, Claude Debussy and Erik Satie.
He preferred realism and precision painting to Impressionism, associating himself with artists, such as Pierre Bonnard and Eduardo Vuillard. Although he wasn’t drawn to Impressionism, like Van Gogh he was influenced by Japonisme and worked with this in his own indomitable style. During his formative years as a working artist and illustrator, Vallotton used woodblocks for printmaking producing bold colour with large blocks of black suggesting shadow.
Images left to right: The Visit (La Visite), 1899; Sandbanks on the Loire (Des Sables au bord de la Loire), 1923; Intimacies V: Money (Intimités V: L’Argent), 1898
Vallotton’s work is imbued with a detached scrutiny. His prints introduce us to the lives of bourgeoise husbands who customarily visited their mistresses at 5pm before returning home to wives and families. Money is exchanged without sentimentality on either part (Intimacies V: Money (Intimités V: L’Argent), 1898; The Visit (La Visite), 1899).
It is the domestic scenes later in his career, after his marriage to the wealthy Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques in 1899, which raise the shackles. Like many of his contemporaries (and indeed forebears), he indulged in painting young, subordinate women. His subjects gaze despondently into the distance or abjectly at the floor as if the artist relishes their objectification. The most disquieting paintings concern children. One stands out in particular, of his little stepdaughter surrounded by foreboding adults as she sits rigid with fear at the dining table, her eyes wide open, not daring to move before sinister men painted in shadows (Le Diner Effet de Lampe/Dinner by Lamplight).
Even his still-life paintings, painted with exceptional photographic precision, are eerie. Sandbanks on the Loire (Des Sables au bord de la Loire 1923), depicts an empty river landscape, except for an isolated figure in the distance.
Exhibition: Royal Academy of Arts, 30 June – 29 September 2019
Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD