The ridiculously profific and multi-skilled Swiss artist Félix Edouard Vallotton was born into a conservative middle-class family in Lausanne. By the end of his life, he’d amassed a staggering amount of art. Over 1700 canvases, 200 engravingsin addition to hundreds of drawings and several sculptures. He wrote three novels, one of which was the semi-autobiographical La Vie meurtrière, “The Murderous Life”. As if this wasn’t enough he wrote plays too,eight of them. Some of his playes were performed in 1904 and 1907 but their reviews were unfavorable.
Graduating in classical studies in 1882, he moved to Paris to study art at the Académie Julian. The young Vallotton haunted the Louvre, spending hours gazing at the works of Holbein, Dürer and Ingres, artists who would be exemplars for him throughout his life. His earliest paintings were mostlytraditional academic portraits.
In the next decade Vallotton painted, wrote art criticism and made a number of prints. In 1891 he executed his first woodcut. The numberous woodcuts he produced during the 1890s were hailed as extremely innovative, establishing Vallotton as a leader in the revival of the woodcut as an artistic medium. He was influenced by post-Impressionism, Symbolism and especially by Japanese woodcuts. In 1890 Vallotton attended a large exhibition of ukiyo-e prints at the École des Beaux-Arts. Like many artists of this he era was an enthusiastic Japonist and collected these prints. His woodcut subjects included domestic scenes, bathing women, portrait heads, and several images of street crowds and demonstrations. Vallotton’s graphic art reached its highest development in Intimités (Intimacies), a series of ten interiors published in 1898 by the Revue Blanche. Vallotton’s woodcuts influenced the graphic art of Edvard Munch, Aubrey Beardsley, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.
By 1892 he was affiliated with a group of young artists called Les Nabis. The group included Pierre Bonnard, Ker-Xavier Roussel, Maurice Denis, and Édouard Vuillard, with whom Vallotton was to form a lifelong friendship. During the 1890s, Vallotton associated himself with the avant-garde and his paintings closely reflected the style of his woodcuts; flat areas of color, hard edges, simplification of detail. His subjects included genre scenes, portraits and nudes.
In 1899 Vallotton married Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques, a wealthy young widow with three children, and in 1900 he attained French citizenship. Around 1899, his printmaking activity diminished as he concentrated on painting, developing a sober, often bitter realism independently of the artistic mainstream. His Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1907) was painted as an apparent response to Picasso’s portrait of the previous year. Vallotton’s paintings of the post-Nabi period found admirers, and were generally respected for their truthfulness and their technical qualities, but the severity of his style was frequently criticized. In its uncompromising character his art prefigured the New Objectivity that flourished in Germany during the 1920s, and has strong parallels in Edward Hopper’s work.
Vallotton responded in 1914 to the coming of the First World War by volunteering for the French army, but he was rejected because of his age. In 1915–16 he returned to the medium of woodcut for the first time since 1901 to express his feelings for his adopted country in the series, This is War, his last prints. He subsequently spent three weeks on a tour of the Champagne front in 1917, on a commission from the Ministry of Fine Arts. The sketches he produced became the basis for a group of paintings, The Church of Souain in Silhouette among them.
In his last years Félix Vallotton lived in seclusion. He concentrated now on on still lifes and what he called “composite landscapes”, landscapes composed in the studio from his memory and imagination.
He died on the day after his 60th birthday, following cancer surgery in Paris in 1925.
The last words he wrote in his diary were, “Fortunately there is still painting.”
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