Private Lives » Introduction


Quiet interiors, families gathered around a dining table, and scenes of children and pets playing in gardens and parks—all humble subjects—were the most potent signifiers of meaning for the four artists examined in this exhibition: Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Félix Vallotton, and Édouard Vuillard. These young men were members of the Nabi brotherhood, an artistic fellowship active in Paris during the last decade of the 1800s. They adopted the name Nabi (from the Hebrew word Nebiim, meaning “prophet”) to reflect their desire to create a new school of art that prioritized suggestion and sensation over the literal depiction of their surroundings. The Nabis were part of the movement of Symbolism in the 1880s and 1890s—which also occurred in literature, music, and theater—
that shifted away from portraying the fleeting effects of nature toward a more mystical, emotive understanding of the world.

Although their styles varied, each artist brought a fresh look at everyday life and the people closest to them. They were dubbed the “generation of intimists” for their ability to coax meaning and emotion from small pleasures and, in Bonnard’s words, the most “modest acts of life.” Their art was both of the home and for the home; their domestically scaled works of art were intended to be lived with, enabling the viewer to revisit a single moment laden with emotion and memory.

While at first glance the Nabis’ paintings, drawings, and prints may seem straightforward, they are complex and frequently paradoxical. Glimpses of snug family life can simultaneously suggest claustrophobic confinement and simmering tensions. The artists depicted their family and friends, but often abstracted or obscured them. Although the Nabis referenced their own private lives, their art ultimately suggests depths of feeling, memory, nostalgia, joy, and melancholy that are universal.

The Nabi Circle

A consistent cast of characters appears in the work of Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Félix Vallotton, and Édouard Vuillard throughout this exhibition: grandparents, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers-in-law, cousins, wives, children, patrons, friends, and pets. Their paintings and prints made their private lives public, but by abstracting or generalizing the faces of their nearest and dearest, the artists shielded those memorialized in their art. Their images of family and friends were not intended as realistic, recognizable portraits. Instead, the Nabis strove to capture feelings of romantic and maternal devotion as well as familial tensions and the transience of pleasure, youth, and life itself. Their art provides a glimpse into the private—and privileged—world of the middle class in Paris during the 1890s, but the themes that their work addressed are timeless and global.

A Word about Wallpaper

As you will discover, many Nabi paintings and prints incorporate wallpaper designs. By the 1890s, wallpaper was an integral part of interior decor. The advent of continuous roll paper in the 1840s led to advancements in the number of colors that could be printed, while also lowering production costs. Soon, wallpaper was found in most middle-class homes across Europe and England.

It functioned as both a backdrop for other decor (paintings, prints, and objets d’art) and a focal point. Commercially printed wallpaper of the era ranged from small, discreet prints to bold vegetal patterns. English wallpapers—especially the designs of English artist and reformer William Morris—were popular in both Great Britain and France. Where known, the publisher and the designers are listed below.

The exhibition designers, inspired by the wallpaper depicted in the interior paintings of the Nabis, selected the following wallpapers for this exhibition:

  1. Intimate and Troubled Interiors: Silvergate, published by Farrow and Ball; contemporary paper based on historical designs
  2. Family Life: Bramble, designed by Kate Faulkner, published by William Morris and Co.
  3. Music in the Home: Montreal Velvet, published by William Morris and Co.
  4. Reading Lounge: Honeysuckle and Tulip, published by William Morris and Co.
Private Lives » Introduction