Written by Maurice Denis in 1892, these words express a vision for a new pictorial language, one in which line, color, and form communicate ideals and evoke emotions. For the group of young artists who banded together under the banner of "Nabis," or "Prophets," the aim of painting was no longer to replicate the world through illusion, but to call forth nature through an approximation of the natural world. The resulting extraordinarily beautiful and compelling paintings were referred to as décorations, works in which line and color took on new and independent meanings from the narrative and descriptive. While in the English language "decoration" connotes superficial and limited importance, the French term had a highly positive and multilayered meaning in the artistic debates of the period. Beyond the Easel is the first exhibition to address the issues surrounding decorative painting at the turn of the 19th century and to show the achievement through the works of these four major French artists in particular.


figure 1: Pierre Bonnard. Women in a Garden: Woman in a Polka-Dot Dress, 1890/91. Distemper over charcoal, pencil, and white chalk on paper, mounted on canvas. Kunsthaus Zürich: Society of Zurich Friends of Art, with a contribution in memory of Ernst Gamper

The Nabis and the Parisian Avant-Garde, 1890-95

The Nabi group, formed in 1889 at the art school Académie Julian in Paris, included a wide circle of artists as well as musicians and writers. At the core of the Nabis were painters Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940), Maurice Denis (1870-1943), and Ker Xavier Roussel (1867-1944). Grammar-school peers, studio partners, and lifelong friends, these artists thoroughly assimilated the principles of Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), who believed that all art is decorative and that the artist’s goals should not be circumscribed by particular styles, scales, or media. In their search for subject matter and a style that would distinguish their works from traditional easel painting, the Nabis also borrowed from a number of other artistic traditions. These far-ranging sources included Japanese art, the work of Italian primitives such as Fra Angelico, the mural paintings of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824-1898), and the contemporary posters and graphic art seen on the streets of Paris (figure 1). The goal of these young painters was a new pictorial expression inspired by traditional mural painting; achieved by harmonious colors, allover design, and matte surfaces; and lacking the precise subjects, illusionistic modeling, and slick finish that typified academic easel painting.

While these artists shared with the Impressionists an interest in intimate, personalized subject matter, especially women shown in interiors and out-of-doors, (figure 2) the aim of their art was quite different. They eschewed Impressionism’s emphasis on temporal effects and its basis in observation in favor of the manipulation of the observable world for emotive and decorative effect. These four artists sought to match their evocative works to particular settings, linking each painting or ensemble aesthetically, psychologically, and physically to a specific interior.

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figure 2: Ker Xavier Roussel. The Seasons of Life (first version), 1892/93. Oil on canvas. Musée d’Orsay, Paris


Painting as Decoration for the Private Interior

Coinciding with the Nabi belief, articulated by Maurice Denis, that a painting is essentially "a plane surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order," was the group’s desire to return painting to its original function as a wall covering intimately related to the architectural setting for which it was intended. Painting as decoration did not, however, imply works that were executed directly on the wall. More often, paintings were executed on canvas and then either glued to the wall or first stretched onto stretcher bars and then attached to the wall unframed, sometimes with small surrounding bandings (baguettes) that served to integrate them into the wall’s surface. Denis’s monumental image of women ascending a ladder, (figure 3) for example, was originally commissioned as a ceiling painting, but, like most of the works in this exhibition, it was framed and hung as an easel painting after being removed from its original setting.

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Early Patronage: The Circle of La Revue blanche

Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis, and Roussel were successful artist-decorators precisely because their works were appreciated by a growing number of collectors who believed that painting could and should transform one’s living environment. Foremost among these supporters were Thadée and Misia Natanson, who not only touted the Nabis in their artistic and literary magazine La Revue blanche, but also collected and commissioned Nabi artwork for their fashionable Paris apartment. It was for this highly personalized environment, covered floor-to-ceiling with brilliant floral wallpaper and fabric, that Vuillard painted the five panels, known collectively as Album, depicting women sewing, reading, and arranging bouquets in lush, flower-filled interiors (figure 4).

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figure 3: Maurice Denis. Ladder in Foliage, or Poetic Arabesques for the Decoration of a Ceiling, 1892. Oil on canvas, mounted on cardboard. Musée Départemental Maurice Denis "Le Prieuré," St.-Germain-en-Laye


Bonnard, Denis, and Roussel: The Lure of the Mediterranean, 1900-20

By 1900 the professional and personal threads binding the Nabis together had weakened as the members married, moved away from Paris, and found new patrons. Their large group exhibitions were replaced by solo and smaller group shows at the galleries of Josse and Gaston Bernheim and Ambroise Vollard, among others. Each of the four artists except Vuillard found new inspiration in the culture and tradition of the south of France, which they evoked in sun-drenched seascapes and pastoral landscapes with subtle references to classical antiquity (figure 5). Responding to the artistic call for a "return to order" (retour à l’ordre) in the early 1900s, Bonnard, Denis, and Roussel, like Aristide Maillol and Henri Matisse, introduced into their works a new emphasis on the classical ideals of order, proportion, and the human figure.

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figure 4: Edouard Vuillard. Woman in a Striped Dress, 1895. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon


International Recognition and New Patrons

As the artists’ reputations grew, so did their ambitions for decorative painting and the prestige and number of their patrons. These included wealthy collectors from Germany, such as Count Harry Kessler, and a number of foreigners living in Paris, such as the American Marguerite Chapin and the Romanian princes Antoine and Emmanuel Bibesco. One of the most important patrons outside of Paris was the Russian collector Ivan Morozov. Not only did he buy easel paintings from all four artists, he also either commissioned or acquired major decorative cycles from Denis, Bonnard, and Roussel between 1908 and 1913. For Morozov, Bonnard created three panels, each over 13 feet tall and showing women and children on the terrace of a villa near St.-Tropez, to be installed between wall columns in the collector’s Moscow home. Roussel’s Triumph of Bacchus (figure 6) is one of two decorative mythological scenes that Morozov purchased after seeing them exhibited at the Paris Salon d’Automne of 1911. This exhibition represents the first time that these important works from Morozov’s collection have been shown outside of Russia.

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figure 5: Maurice Denis. Eurydice, c. 1905. Oil on canvas. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Nationalgalerie, on permanent loan from the Ernst von Siemens Foundation, Munich

Vuillard and the City

While his Nabi friends turned to the Mediterranean for inspiration in the early 20th century, Vuillard continued to plumb the landscapes of Paris and its environs for subject matter. Between 1908 and 1916, for example, Vuillard painted a number of decorative paintings showing a bird’s-eye view of Place Vintimille, a modest city square that he observed from the nearby apartment he shared with his mother. For these works, as well as the five-panel screen on the same subject commissioned by Marguerite Chapin (figure 7), Vuillard used an unusual medium: glue-based tempera, known as distemper. Distemper requires a complicated process, involving heating of the medium and speedy application, and yields either a matte, crusted, frescolike surface or, when thinly applied (as in the screen), a surface that appears open and quickly brushed. In all of these works, Vuillard showed his talent for integrating one of the Impressionists’ favorite themes—the modern city—with the requirements of the specific decorative commission: scale, palette, and allover design.

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figure 6: Ker Xavier Roussel. Triumph of Bacchus, or Mythological Scene, 1911; reworked 1913. Oil on canvas. The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg


The Late Decorative Paintings, 1918-30

By the second decade of the 20th century, Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis, and Roussel were all established artists sought after by private collectors for their easel paintings and decorative works. They also received commissions for the decoration of public buildings and were considered the heirs of the great French tradition in mural painting. By this time, the principles of their decorative painting style and their interest in patterned surface, pictorial depth, matte surfaces, and non-narrative subjects had been widely assimilated by Modern painters. Although firmly rooted in the 19th century, the Nabi search for both a decorative style and an expressive visual language lay at the heart of 20th-century Modernism. Bonnard’s three great "terrace" paintings, executed between 1918 and 1928, are eloquent testimonies to the degree to which painting as decoration had been incorporated into his entire oeuvre. The same can be said of all four artists, whose contributions to the evolution of decorative painting—and through it, to the many currents of Modern art—are finally receiving full credit.

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figure 7: Edouard Vuillard. Five-Panel Screen for Miss Marguerite Chapin: Place Vintimille, 1911. Distemper on paper, mounted on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., gift of Enid A Haupt


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