Les Nabis
History of Post-Impressionist Painting Group: Decorative Symbolism.
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The Talisman (1888)
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

Les Nabis (1890s)

One of several French Post-Impressionism art groups associated with the Ecole de Paris, Les Nabis rebelled against the confines of academic art - as taught by the Parisian Ecole des Beaux Arts - dabbled in mysticism and symbolism, and sought a universal form of painting that placed more importance on a painting's decorative presentation, paying special attention to the emotional use of colour and linear distortion. Strongly influenced by the work of Paul Gauguin, the group proved to be an important contributor to Post-Impressionist painting and to fin de siecle decorative art.

The name Nabis derived from the Hebrew for 'prophets', and was coined by the poet Henri Cazalis, who compared the way the group aimed to revitalise painting as prophets of modern art, with how the ancient prophets had rejuvenated Israel.)


Self-Portrait by Pierre Bonnard (1889)
Private Collection.

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The most important post-Impressionist painters belonging to the Nabis group included Paul Serusier (1864-1927) - the driving force behind the group - Maurice Denis (1870-1943) - the group's leading theorist - Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947), Paul Ranson (1862-1909), Ker-Xavier Roussel (1867-1944), Henri Ibels (1867-1936) and Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940), all of whom had trained at the progressive private art school Academie Julian. These original members were later joined by the Hungarian painter Jozsef Rippl-Ronai (1861-1927), the French artists Aristide Maillol (1861-1944) and Georges Lacombe (1868-1916), the Dutch painter Jan Verkade (1868-1946) and the Swiss artist Felix Valloton (1865-1925).

Reacting in part against the superficial prettiness of Impressionism, and inspired by the aesthetics of Synthetism and Cloisonnism promoted by Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), the Nabis' aesthetic philosophy was to remove the boundaries between decorative art and easel painting, while also injecting art with literary or other narrative meaning. And Realism in art was set aside in favour of decorative symbolism. Not content solely with oil painting, the group branched out into stained glass art, fans, tapestry, furniture, mosaic art, lithographic prints, poster art, puppets, book illustration and theatrical set designs.

NOTE: See also the influence of Japonism on the Nabis, especially the highly decorative genre of Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, exemplified in works by the famous Japanese painters Hokusai (1760-1849) and Hiroshige (1797-1858).

Paul Serusier, one of the founders of Les Nabis had worked with Paul Gauguin at the Pont-Aven school in Brittany. Under the older man's guidance, Serusier had painted The Talisman (1888, Musee d'Orsay, Paris). It was this seminal masterpiece of French painting, marked by its rich pure colours of purple, vermillion and Veronese green, that launched the group. Supported by the literary and visual arts journal La Revue Blanche, the Nabis exhibited together throughout the 1890s, and after a highly successful show in 1899, they slowly disbanded. Serusier and Denis remained within the general idiom of the Nabis, while Bonnard and Vuillard collaborated in the development of Intimism, a style of decorative interior scenes. Bonnard himself continued to produce decorative masterpieces featuring peaceful domestic scenes, such as the wonderful Green Blouse (1919, Metropolitan Museum) and Terrace at Vernon (1939, Metropolitan Museum).

• For information about French decorative art, see: Homepage.


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