The ten studio portraits of women by Félix Vallotton (1865-1925) now on view at Michael Werner in New York are difficult pictures to like, and that is precisely where their mysterious appeal can be found. Vallotton is justly celebrated for his friezelike portrait (not in the show) of the legendary anarchist and writer Félix Fénéon Editing La Revue Blanche (1896), the journal associated with the Nabi artists Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis and Édouard Vuillard, an intense image of a man hunched over his manuscripts that today seems to presage the fervor of the solitary blogger.
Vallotton came to Paris from Switzerland when he was 17 to study at the Académie Julian and soon achieved a certain level of popularity with his very modern, Japonisme-inspired black-and-white woodcuts, which could be starkly decorative (Les Cygnes, an image of swans courting among the reeds) or amusingly contemporary (Le bon marché, an elaborate scene of women shoppers at a millinery sale). To specialists he is also known, after a career that was ended by cancer at age 60, for interior scenes, "intimities" and pictures of couples in romantic embrace, large reclining nudes, Swiss landscapes and dramatic allegorical pictures. He also illustrated magazines and books, and wrote exhibition reviews, plays and novels. His auction record is held by En Promenade, an asymmetrical Nabi composition showing a bourgeois family taking a sidewalk constitutional, which was painted on a 12 x 18 in. piece of cardboard in ca. 1895. It sold for about $2.1 million in London in 2006.
Vallotton’s success was fostered by his marriage in 1899 to Gertrude Rodrigues-Henriques, a wealthy widow with three children, who was the daughter of the art dealer Alexandre Bernheim. The alliance changed Vallotton’s fortunes dramatically, as he moved into more luxurious quarters and was soon exhibiting his works with Galerie Bernheim-Jeune.
As the 19th century drew to a close and the 20th century began, and as he settled into the kind of bourgeois life he had once scorned, Vallotton took what seems to be a curiously independent artistic path. While the Fauves were carrying on the modernist enterprise of flatness and bright color, he began painting a series of portraits of models posing in his studio. Inspired by Ingres, he seems to have been striving for an academic effect, emphasizing form and volume over unconventional design, in which case he was engaged in post-war neo-classicism well in advance of the event.
Vallotton took ordinary portrait commissions, of course, including one made of Gertrude Stein in 1907, the year following Pablo Picasso’s sessions with the avant-garde writer, that is now in the Cone Collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art. A great picture, it is overshadowed by Picasso’s version. Stein seems not to have hung it, and according to the catalogue for the 2007 Vallotton exhibition at the Kunsthaus Zürich, she later cruelly wrote that "Vallotton was a Manet for the impecunious," whose "portraits had the aridity but none of the elegance of David."
A few years earlier, Leo Stein had bought Vallotton’s Nude Reclining on a Yellow Cushion, which was inspired by Manet’s Olympia and had been exhibited at the 1905 Salon (where Louis Vauxcelles called it "laughable"). One of a series grander, reclining nudes, which eventually led to some still grander allegorical paintings, Nude Reclining and pictures like it were almost certainly done from photographs. Though we have no documentary evidence, the paintings look like they’re copied from photographs. Vallotton is known to have owned a camera, as did Bonnard and Vuilliard, who were fascinated by their "petit kodaks."
Vallotton’s unique style struck observers as something less than engaging from the beginning. In 1910, André Salmon suggested the artist was increasingly embracing "arbitrary ugliness." In 1947, the Swiss critic Paul Budry, noting that Vallotton’s figures seemed "wrongly placed," compared them to "trapped animals with a broken paw, stiff, awkward and miserable, full of desire to escape." And Sasha Newman, curator of the traveling Vallotton retrospective organized at Yale University in 1991-92, claimed that Vallotton objectified his models, "devising a personal voluptuary of the ugly, the abbreviated and the distilled."
In the context of such overwhelming rejection, the contemporary viewer cannot help but give a closer look at the suite of paintings at Werner, which take several approaches to the notion of artist and model in the studio. Some are studio nudes that have been converted into allegories, like Le Printemps (1908), where it’s easy to imagine an all-too-common background being painted out in favor of an abstract and vaguely mythological setting. Others have a genre feel, like Brunette Woman, Seated, with a Guitar (1913), or seem almost directly expressionistic, as the moody young woman with her peltlike mass of hair in La chevelure blonde (1915), which could be an homage to Edvard Munch.
Many of the paintings suggest a self-consciousness about the enterprise as a whole -- "the woman question" was as pressing in those early modernist days as it has been more recently -- and depict the model as an active agent, as someone posing as a model posing. Often, the model looks out at the viewer, in a kind of direct address. Calling the nudes "still disturbing today," Linda Städler, co-curator of the 2007 exhibition, notes that Vallotton "not only thwarts the concept of an idealized nude, but also of a realistic depiction of a body."
The result is a representation of the nude that women, rather than men, find amenable. Women love him, one of his fans wrote in 1919 (as Städler notes), for his love of their "touching humanity: the scrawny, the fat, the brunettes, the blondes. . . ."
The paintings are priced at $250,000-$450,000.
"Félix Vallotton," Feb. 4-Apr. 10, 2010, at Michael Werner, 4 East 77th Street, New York, N.Y. 10075
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.