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About this term

Source: Oxford University Press

Group of artists, predominantly French, active c. 1888–1900. Dedicated to pursuing the Synthetist example of Gauguin, the Nabis were a disaffected group of art students at the Académie Julian in Paris who formed themselves into a secret brotherhood in 1888–9. The movement’s first adherents were paul Sérusier, the group’s founder, Maurice Denis, Pierre Bonnard, paul Ranson and Henri-Gabriel Ibels. Returning to Paris from Pont-Aven in the autumn term of 1888, Sérusier revealed to his friends a new Synthetist use of colour and design exemplified in the Bois d’Amour at Pont-Aven (Paris, Mus. d’Orsay; for illustration see Sérusier, paul), a boldly simplified landscape painted on a cigar-box lid under Gauguin’s directions that later became known as The Talisman. Already drawn together by their common interest in idealist philosophy and in recent Symbolist developments in literature, they adopted their esoteric name from the Hebrew word for prophets—a private designation rather than a public label—at the suggestion of Henri Cazalis, a Hebrew scholar. The name aptly described the enthusiastic zeal with which they greeted and then disseminated the revolutionary teachings of Gauguin. Their youthful desire to shake off the taint of academicism—in their case the quasi-photographic naturalism taught by their masters William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Jules Lefebvre—and revert to the pure decorative roots of art had loose, though possibly conscious, parallels with earlier artistic brotherhoods, notably the German Nazarenes and the English Pre-Raphaelites.

The original group was soon augmented by new recruits, Ker-Xavier Roussel and Edouard Vuillard, friends from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris, and in 1891–2 a number of foreign artists, including the Dutch Jan Verkade, Danish Mogens Ballin, Swiss Félix Vallotton and Hungarian József Rippl-Rónai. These in their turn introduced the sculptor Georges Lacombe and Aristide Maillol, whose Nabi experiments in a variety of media preceded his career as a sculptor. A few writers and musicians such as Charles Morice (1861–1919) and Pierre Hermant were affiliated to the Nabi group, and Gauguin, then in Tahiti, was made an honorary member. Although he never took any active part in Nabi activities, he gave them his encouragement and appreciated their moral support.

Early meetings were held at a bistro, the L’Os à Moelle near the Académie Julian, and after 1890 monthly reunions took place in Ranson’s studio at 25 Boulevard du Montparnasse, jokingly referred to as ‘Le Temple’. Nicknames were adopted, and certain esoteric words were used, mainly by the more committed members of the group, Ranson, Sérusier and Verkade, as a means of setting themselves and their ‘icônes’ (pictures) apart from the uncomprehending ‘pelichtim’ (bourgeoisie).

Although at no stage can one identify a true group style, between 1890 and 1892, when Sérusier, Bonnard, Vuillard and Denis shared the use of a small studio in the Rue Pigalle, there was a common exploration of certain decorative stylistic features: simplified drawing, flat patches of colour and bold contours inspired by the work of Gauguin and Emile Bernard, as well as arabesques and other patterning devices inspired by Japanese prints. One finds such stylistic features combined in Denis’s Mme Ranson with a Cat (1892; Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Mus. Dépt. Prieuré), which was painted on to a vertical panel suitable for a folding screen rather than on to a regular size of canvas. They frequently painted on unconventional supports, cardboard or even velvet and explored a wide spectrum of decorative work, ranging from posters, screens, wallpaper and lampshades to scenery painting or costume design for the Symbolist theatre. The Symbolist poet and dramatist Paul Fort (1872–1960) made use of their talents from 1891 to 1893 at his Théâtre d’Art, and from 1893 they were closely involved with the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre, managed by Denis’s former school-friend the actor Aurélien Lugné-Poe. The Revue blanche, an anarchic and eclectic journal founded in 1891 by the brothers Thadée and Alexandre Natanson, did much to promote the Nabis: as well as sponsoring group printmaking ventures, the Natansons were responsible for offering Vuillard some of his earliest major decorative commissions. In 1895 Siegfried Bing commissioned stained-glass designs from Sérusier, Denis, Vuillard, Bonnard, Ibels, Roussel and Vallotton, which were made up in Tiffany glass and exhibited at his Salon de l’Art Nouveau, while the art dealer Ambroise Vollard encouraged Denis, Bonnard, Vuillard and Roussel to experiment in the novel medium of colour lithography.

The first group exhibition, arranged by Denis, was held at the château of Saint-Germain-en-Laye in 1891; thereafter until 1896 group shows were held regularly in the gallery of the dealer Louis Le Barc de Boutteville, where the Nabis, identified as Symbolists, hung work alongside the Neo-Impressionists and independent figures such as Toulouse-Lautrec. During the 1890s the Nabis also exhibited, either together or separately, in Toulouse, Antwerp and Brussels. Denis’s Définition du Néo-traditionnisme (A. & Crit., May 1890), published as a defence of Gauguin and asserting the right of the painter to deform and simplify nature in the pursuit of decorative beauty, served as a loose stylistic credo; and in 1892 an important article by the critic Georges-Albert Aurier hailed the Nabis as inheritors of Gauguin’s teaching and creators of a truly Symbolist art.

The lack of a clear programme or unified aesthetic aim left the way open for individual members to pursue their own independent paths, though the exact date at which the group disintegrated is unclear. Whereas Sérusier, who was essentially responsible for the group’s existence, felt his initial vision of a unified brotherhood had been disappointed as early as 1892, and Nabi meetings after that date occurred less frequently, close collaboration over exhibitions and other projects continued until 1900; shows such as the Durand-Ruel group show of March 1899, which marked a decade of group activity, had a cohesive effect.

There were two main artistic divisions within the group: artists such as Sérusier, Denis and Ranson saw an essential connection between their Nabi ideas and their religious or theosophical beliefs and tended to draw their subjects from myth, religion or tradition; on the other hand, artists such as Vallotton, Vuillard and Bonnard, whose commitment to the esoteric, symbolist side of the Nabi aesthetic was weaker, drew their art more directly from nature and the modern world. Whereas the former maintained their roles into the 20th century as disseminators of the Nabi aesthetic through teaching and religious painting, the two most successful members of the group, Bonnard and Vuillard, departed radically from their periods of Nabi experimentation and developed luminous and subjective styles that built on the Impressionists’ use of colour. Yet even in their 20th-century portraits and fashionable paintings of and for bourgeois interiors, both artists retained something of the original emphasis on the flat, decorative purpose of painting that was the legacy of their Nabi beginnings.

Belinda Thomson
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press


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