Close Look

Les Nabis, The 19th-Century Painting Cult You've Never Heard Of

Les Nabis, The 19th-Century Painting Cult You've Never Heard Of
The Meeting In The Sacred Grove by Paul Serusier. Image via

Have you ever wanted to put together an artist collective, but you were afraid it just wasn’t spooky enough? Don’t fret, friend; take a page out of 19th century painter-philosopher Paul Serusier’s book—if it’s not a cult, it ain’t worth it. Serusier’s creepy creative circle has been credited with aiding the visual transition from Impressionism to Modernism , but there was more to his group, termed the Les Nabis , than their synergistic use of color and line. The mantras, the meetings, the weird manifestos; worth a deep dive, no?


Motif Romandsque by Maurice Denis (1890) via Wikipedia Motif Romandsque by Maurice Denis (1890) via Wikipedia

The Nabis (a title taken from the Hebrew and Arabic term for “prophets”) were a Symbolist art cult founded by Serusier, consisting of pals he met while studying at the Academie Julian in the late 1880s, including Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Paul Ranson, Edouard Vuillard, Ker-Xavier Roussel, and Felix Vallotton. Their central tenets were more conceptual than standardized; Serusier felt that artists could serve as “high priests” and “seers” of invisible truth, effectively fetishizing the concept of artistic subjectivity. It followed that member’s styles were fairly divergent from one another, while sharing a few important similarities—harmonious formal elements, for instance, and a dedication to the revitalization of painting as an art form, which they viewed as having been diluted by their somewhat fluffy Impressionist predecessors.

The Printed Dress by Edouard Vuillard (1891) via Museu de Art de Sao Paulo The Printed Dress by Edouard Vuillard (1891) via Museu de Art de Sao Paulo

They believed that shape and shade were the vessels for what Nabi historian Charles Chasse termed “style,” designed to express the artist’s “personality.” The brotherhood looked to Gauguin as the blueprint for this particular brand of artistic communication, fusing literary theory and mysticism in the process. Their hybridized, Neoplatonic philosophical investment in the eye as a means of psychic translation fortified their rejection of Naturalism in favor of more staunchly graphic references, like Japanese decorative art  and Christian-adjacent spirituality. Painter and original Nabi Maurice Denis is famed for a declaration later championed by 20th century Modern painters, “A picture—before being a war horse, a female nude, or some anecdote—is essentially a flat surface covered with colors in a particular order.” This assertion gets to the root of the Nabis’ central concern; painting as a gateway to the transformative power of beauty, and beauty as a portal to individual supereminence.


Le Calvaire by Maurice Denis, 1889 via Musee d'Orsay Le Calvaire by Maurice Denis , 1889 via Musee d'Orsay

It’s difficult to tell how much of the “secret society” framing The Nabis was constructed in earnest, as their interactions often adopted a laddish tone. Less Illuminati and more Kappa Sigma, the group even chanted a mantra together before meetings; “Sounds, colors, and words have a miraculously expressive power beyond all representation and even beyond the literal meaning of the words.” However, the veracity of their customs are up for interpretation.

Portrait of Paul Ranson by Paul Seursier, 1890 Portrait of Paul Ranson by Paul Seursier, 1890

In an 1890 painting portrait of member Paul Ranson, founder Paul Seursier portrays his friend as outfitted in the “Nabi Costume,” a ceremonial get-up that includes a crosier and pentagram. There is little supporting evidence that the Nabis dressed up for their meetings, unfortunately, but the concept speaks to Seursier's interest in the clandestine nature of their undertakings. While the group did meet in Ranson’s studio in Boulevarde du Montparnasse, nicknamed “The Temple," on a weekly basis, it remains unclear whether or not the esotericism portrayed in this piece was tongue-in-cheek, symbolic, or documentary. The Nabi’s shared interest in the occult undeniably extended to their treatment of paintings, though; one of Serusier’s paintings, The River Aven at the Bois d’Amour , inspired by direct advice Gauguin imparted to the artist, was used as a “Talisman,” a “magical charm” for the group to reference in moments of doubt.

Les Bois d'Amour a Pont-Aven by Paul Serusier, 1888 via Wikipedia Les Bois d'Amour a Pont-Aven by Paul Serusier, 1888 via Wikipedia

Even the name of the collective was kept a secret until 1897, and members referred to their studios as ergasteria, loosely translating to ateliers. Letters ended with the initials E.T.P.M.V . et M.P. , short for “en ta paume, mon verbe et ma pensee” (in your palm, my word and my thoughts). Serious or not, the clandestine nature of the Nabi highlighted a profound investment in progressive artistic practice, heralding a conceptual, if not visual, turn towards abstraction that would only come to fruition decades later.


September Evening by Maurice Denis, 1891, via Daily Art Magazine September Evening by Maurice Denis , 1891, via Daily Art Magazine

One of the reasons the Nabi collective isn’t discussed much in the context of Modernism lies in the fairly banal and, at times, bourgeois subject matter favored by its members. In the case of painters like Vuillard, his approach might appear even more conservative than the Impressionists he so maligned; he and his Nabi ilk gravitated towards interiors, gardens, and often saccharine Symbolist mainstays like Christian iconography and literary motifs.

Mme Vuillard in a Set Designer's Studio by Edouard Vuillard, 1893 via Met Museum Mme Vuillard in a Set Designer's Studio by Edouard Vuillard, 1893 via Met Museum

While they were heavily influenced by Gauguin ’s compositional ferocity and the decorative impact of Toulouse-Latrec , on the surface, most Nabi paintings feel tepid, at best. Beautifully coiffed women swan around in lush salons or amid impossible greenery, and the results, while very pretty, aren’t exactly stirring. Interestingly, the Nabi have the distinction of being one of the last avant-garde movements with a reverent relationship to the past; instead of burning down the house, they just wanted to spruce up the joint (think Pre-Raphaelites with better taste). While each member’s work was distinct in both subject matter and aesthetic, the overall mood was one of restraint, and it would be quite the project to locate much radicalism in the Nabis' paintings or photographic experiments.

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Mme Vuillard Sewing by the Window, rue Truffaut by Edouard Vuillard, 1899, via Met Museum Mme Vuillard Sewing by the Window, rue Truffaut by Edouard Vuillard, 1899, via Met Museum

Still, in their quest to evoke existential responses in viewers through visual cues, the materiality of paint and the conceit of art as a maker-centric enterprise started the ball rolling on the genre's slow march to non-representational work. They believed that their Baudelaire-inspired approach to depicting day-to-day life, as a vessel for individual painterly intervention, marked a turning point in artistic innovation, and arguably, it did. In particular, the Nabis stressed a contiguous relationship between art and design, branching out to paint on a range of flat surfaces like velvet, cardboard, and screens. Like their British compatriots in the English Arts and Crafts movement, the Nabis assumed an egalitarian posture towards materials, creating decorative wallpapers, ceramics, and stained glass pieces in the process, even branching out into the stylish realm of color lithography. Their rejection of easel painting as a window or portral helped the Nabis disavow illusory depth, one of the first steps towards abstracting their forms.

The Album by Edouard Vuillard, 1895 The Album by Edouard Vuillard, 1895

The Nabis parted amicably in 1900 after their final exhibition, mutually agreeing that their work was done.

Before Dinner by Peierre Bonnard, 1924 via Met Museum Before Dinner by Peierre Bonnard, 1924 via Met Museum

The takeaway?

The shift from Water Lillies to Guernica took a hoard of Frenchman, potentially in very silly outfits, to get off the ground.


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