Felix Vallotton. Painting Five Artists, 1903
Art Artist

The Nabis group – the forerunners of a new era in the visual arts

Spring, Paul Sérusier
Spring, Paul Sérusier

The Nabis Group is a Parisian creative association founded in 1888 by Paul Sérusier. The work of the Nabis group is an important intermediate link between academism and impressionism, which were popular at the end of the 19th century, and the artistic trends of the beginning of the 20th century. Nabid paintings are close to Post-Impressionism, Symbolism and Art Nouveau. It is difficult to rank them as one big trend, since young artists drew inspiration from a variety of sources, creating something new and unique for their time.

Yellow Farm at Pouldu, Paul Sérusier
Yellow Farm at Pouldu, Paul Sérusier

The history of the Nabis group

The Nabis group was formed from young painters who met and became friends at the Accademia Julian, the former main competitor of the Parisian Academy of Fine Arts. The training was traditional, the Impressionists who had already become famous and the Post-Impressionists who replaced them were not studied. One of the students, Paul Sérusier, was lucky: he visited the city of Pont-Aven and met Paul Gauguin there. Sérusier’s first significant work, The Talisman, was written under the guidance of this master. For the members of the association, it has become programmatic.

The Nabi Group was founded in 1888 as a result of controversy over an unusual painting. Close to abstraction, “Talisman”, painted with pure and bright colors, became an illustration to explain the principles of synthetism and subjective reflection of reality. New ideas captivated Maurice Denis, Edouard Vuillard and Ker-Xavier Roussel, who became the basis of the association. A little later they were joined by Pierre Bonnard and other less famous artists. The name “Nabis” was suggested by their poet friend Auguste Cazalis. Translated from Hebrew, this word means “prophet” or “possessed.”

My Grandmother, Edouard Vuyard
My Grandmother, Edouard Vuyard

The members of the creative union gathered in a tavern or in the joint workshop of Bonnard and Vuillard.

The first small exhibitions were held in the same studio, which aroused public interest. Serious patrons soon appeared: the owner of the House of New Art store and the Revue Blanche magazine, where Nabid works were constantly published. It also published articles by the chief theoretician of the group, Maurice Denis.

An exhibition in 1899 at the Paul Durand-Ruel gallery is considered to be the moment of Nabi’s disintegration. After her, the contradictions between the artists reached their climax, and each of them decided to follow his own path. Nevertheless, the members of the association maintained friendly relations. The Nabids had a significant impact on Henri Matisse, Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondriaan and nearly all Cubists. Their work was an important step on the path from reproducing nature to abstraction. Russian collectors Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov showed interest in their paintings, thanks to whom many works are now kept in the Hermitage and the Pushkin Museum.

Afternoon in the Woods, Maurice Denny
Afternoon in the Woods, Maurice Denny

The Nabis group: characteristics of creativity

Many Nabids were united by their admiration for Paul Gauguin and the desire to bring something new to art. But otherwise, the participants in the association were very different. Among them, there are two main directions. The first developed mystical ideas and gravitated towards symbolism. This path was chosen by Paul Sérusier, Maurice Denis and Paul Ranson. They were interested in literary sources, religious philosophy and Eastern esoteric teachings.

The second group of artists gravitated more towards impressionism and preferred to paint lyrical everyday scenes – portraits of real people, park landscapes and interiors. Such subjects were preferred by Edouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard and Ker-Xavier Roussel, who called themselves “intimists.”

Felix Vallotton. Painting Five Artists, 1903
Felix Vallotton. Painting Five Artists, 1903

The Nabids often turned to arts and crafts, blurring the boundaries between high art and ordinary things.

They created:
  • artistic ceramics;
  • stained-glass windows;
  • tapestries;
  • decorative screens;
  • book illustrations;
  • theater posters and sets for plays by Ibsen and Maeterlinck.

Interest in decoration is also evident in numerous paintings, where characters are lost against the background of graphic wallpapers or fabrics with spectacular prints.

Nabis group, The Church of Souain in Sihlouette, Felix Vallotton
The Church of Souain in Sihlouette, Felix Vallotton
The most famous artists of the Nabis group

The Nabis group united many names – both direct participants and close friends and followers. But the most significant contributions were made by five painters:

  1. Paul Sérusier. This author called Gauguin “the liberator of painting” and took over a lot from him. About the art group, he wrote that he dreamed of creating a noble brotherhood of artists obsessed with work, in love with goodness and beauty. In his paintings, Sérusier often depicted Brittany, which he considered the most beautiful place in the world.
  2. Maurice Denis. The artist combined active painting with writing theoretical articles on the ideas of Nabis. Denis’s painting is imbued with Christian motives. He was greatly influenced by the masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance.
  3. Pierre Bonnard. This is the most famous representative of the group, for whom the fame of an unsurpassed colorist was entrenched. Bonnard is called the last adherent of the Impressionist aesthetics. He created colorful interiors, landscapes and everyday scenes using rich colors and vivid contrasts.
  4. Edouard Vuillard. Throughout his life, this painter loved to experiment, therefore, among all the Nabids, he is distinguished by the most multifaceted and varied creativity. Vuillard was anxious about women and constantly painted them, but he could not establish his personal life – he was so absorbed in work.
  5. Felix Vallotton. The Swiss artist joined the Nabids in 1892 and took an active part in their work for about three years. Vallotton became famous not only for his paintings, but also for graphic works, including woodcuts and illustrations.
Nabis group, The Flowered Dress, Edouard Vuillard
The Flowered Dress, Edouard Vuillard
Nabis group, The Fourteenth of July at Etretat, Felix Vallotton
The Fourteenth of July at Etretat, Felix Vallotton
Nabis group, Visitation in Blue, Maurice Denis
Visitation in Blue, Maurice Denis