Paul Serusier
Biography of Post-Impressionist Nabis Painter.

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Paul Serusier (1864-1927)


Early Life
Les Nabis
Nabis Philosophy
Mysticism and Writing

NOTE: For analysis of works by members of Les Nabis like Paul Serusier,
please see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

Fisherman on the Laita (1890)
Private Collection. For other similar
sublime works, please see:
Greatest 20th-Century Paintings.


The French symbolist painter, designer and art theorist Paul Serusier was an associate and follower of Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) and Emile Bernard (1868-1941) at the artist colony of Pont-Aven, in Brittany. But he is best known as a founder member of Les Nabis, a French group of Post-Impressionist painters, influenced by Gauguin's use of colour in painting. In 1888, Serusier painted Landscape: Bois d'Amour (The Talisman) (Musee d'Orsay, Paris), and it was this seminal landscape painting, characterized by its semi-abstract treatment, and rich pure colours of purple, vermillion and Veronese green, that launched the group. Other members of Les Nabis included Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947), Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940) and Maurice Denis (1870-1943). Serusier's theories on fine art painting were, if anything, more important than his own creative work. He is best remembered for his treatise ABC of Painting (1921), which explored colour relationships and proportionality. An active figure in French painting, from 1908 he taught regularly at the Academie Ranson.

For an explanation of the
terminology, see:
Art: Definition and Meaning.

For an idea of the pigments
used by Paul Serusier, see:
Colour Palette Nineteenth Century.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.
For the greatest view painters, see:
Best Landcape Artists.


Early Life

Paul Serusier was born into a prosperous middle-class family: his father was a successful business. In 1875 he entered the Condorcet Lycee from where he graduated in 1883 in philosophy and in the sciences. In 1885, he enrolled at the progressive private art school Academie Julian. It was here that he began his lifelong friendship with Maurice Denis.


During the summer of 1888 he visited the artist colony of Pont-Aven in Brittany, where Paul Gauguin had attracted a band of followers. During his time at Pont-Aven, the 24-year old Serusier painted a semi-abstract landscape painting called The Talisman, under the watchful eye of Gauguin. The picture made full use of the fashionable technique of Cloisonnism (from the French cloison, meaning partition) a method popular with French symbolist painters, which was characterized by flat areas of colour bordered by heavy outlines. (It is also sometimes mistakenly called Synthetism.)


Les Nabis

Returning to the Academy in Paris, Serusier enthusiastically shared the ideas he had learned from Gauguin, concerning the decorative effects of colour and showed off his new work, all of which triggered passionate discussion among his fellow students. It was at this point that he formed a separate group - called Les Nabis - which included his close friend Maurice Denis, as well as Pierre Bonnard, Paul Ranson (1862-1909), and Henri Ibels (1867-1936). These founder members of the group were later joined by the Hungarian painter Jozsef Rippl-Ronai (1861-1927), the French modern artists Ker-Xavier Roussel (1867-1944), Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940), Aristide Maillol (1861-1944) and Georges Lacombe (1868-1916), the Dutch painter Jan Verkade (1868-1946) and the Swiss artist Felix Valloton (1865-1925).

Nabis Philosophy

The group's shared approach included an aversion to the superficial prettiness of Impressionism, and a reverence for Gauguin's Post-Impressionist painting, notably his technique of Synthetism. It sought to remove the boundaries between decorative art and easel painting, while also injecting art with literary or other narrative meaning. As well as painting, group members also practised stained glass art, textile design, tapestry, puppetry, mosaic art, furniture design, lithography, glassware, book illustration, theatrical designs and poster art. Realism in art was set aside in favour of decorative symbolism.

The Nabis met regularly to debate aesthetics, along with other theoretical issues concerning art, symbolism, and esotericism. However, after Gauguin left France for Tahiti in 1891, the group gradually lost its closeness. Nevertheless, promoted by the journal La Revue Blanche, they continued to exhibit together throughout the 1890s. It wasn't until after a highly successful show in 1899 that they disbanded. Serusier and Denis remained within the general idiom of the group, while Bonnard and Vuillard developed Intimism, a highly decorative style of interior scene.


Serusier himself returned to Brittany where he worked for two years (1892-94). His chosen subjects were Breton peasants, while his palette had changed from a Gauguin-inspired selection of pure colour, to one considerably toned down with grey. Serusier spent the winters in Paris working alongside his friend Lugne-Poe, founder of the Theatre de l'Oeuvre, whose symbolist productions attracted many of the Nabis artists into set decoration and costume design. In 1897 and 1903, Serusier visited the school of religious art at the German Benedictine monastery of Beuron, where monks followed an artistic philosophy according to which the laws of beauty were revealed by God only to the artists who perceived the correct divine proportions and harmony of sizes. Serusier became deeply attached to their ideas, although he failed to convince his Parisian friends of their importance. Up until 1900, most of his work had featured Breton peasants. After 1900, its content became almost exclusively religious.

Mysticism and Writing

In 1914, Serusier settled in Brittany, becoming something of a mystic. He began writing seriously and applied Beuron-style concepts of religious symbolism and sacred proportions to his oil painting, which was now almost entirely religious. In addition, he also explored Egyptian art, artists of the Italian Sienese School of Painting, and Medieval tapestries. From 1908, he also taught regularly at the Ranson Academy. In 1921, he published ABC de la Peinture, a summary of his research in which he outlined his theory of simple shapes, and colour. (See also: Colour Pigments and Colour Theory in Painting.) He died in 1927 in Morlaix, Western Brittany.

Works by Paul Serusier can be seen in some of the best art museums in France.


• For biographical details of other French artists, see: Famous Painters.
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