Like a Prophecy: Private Lives of the Nabis

Maurice Denis, Child with Apron, or Little Girl in a Red Dress, 1897, oil on board, installed in Private Lives: Home and Family in the Art of the Nabis at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

At the time of its conception more than five years ago, no one could have conceived the ways the Cleveland Museum of Art’s exhibit Private Lives: Home and Family in the Art of the Nabis would coincidentally connect to contemporary experience in 2021.

Private Lives gathers paintings and prints from a group of late 19th-century artists in Paris. Members of the Nabi Brotherhood–painters Pierre Bonnard (1867–1947), Maurice Denis (1870–1943), Félix Vallotton (1865–1925) and Édouard Vuillard (1868-1940) –aimed in their work to show emotion by suggestion: the relationships between people in a painting, the way they acknowledge each other or don’t, whether they are engaged in the activity of a group or some solitary thing.  Close relationships within families, and the intimate surroundings of their homes are a great setting for this musing. And in 2021, as the pandemic lingers, it feels ironic that they chose for their brotherhood the word Nabis, the Hebrew word for “Prophets.”

Did you take up, or revisit a musical instrument during the pandemic? Or did you get a new cat, or pay a lot of attention to an old one? Did you plant a vegetable or flower garden? These common experiences of the last 16 months or so make a fascinating, if-coincidental context in which to view the show.  Indeed, the show is divided into sections that just about mirror the things so many of us did to cope with the isolation of the pandemic: The Intimate Interior / The Troubled Interior; Family Life; Music Chez Soi; In The Garden; and The Nabi City.

In a podcast created in June 2020 as they were writing the catalog, co-curators Mary Weaver Chapin, of the Portland Art Museum, and Heather Lemonedes Brown, chief curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art, touched on the irony of the exhibit’s content during the 2020 pandemic, which of course had people around the world couped up with their families and pets inside their homes for months on end.

Edouard Vuillard, The Game of Checkers, Color lithograph, 1899

As Chapin said, “I find it terribly ironic that we’re talking about these great pleasures and rituals of home life and I’m looking at these paintings and feeling like I’m actually starring in one of them because the artists love to depict just what Pierre Bonnard called the modest acts of life . . .”

As Heather Lemonedes Brown said, “I hear you, there is such a such an irony to writing about domestic interiors and life, life at home with family when one is one’s whole world is essentially one’s home during this period of time. So yes, it’s there’s a mirroring in our own lives today in 2020, with the paintings that we’re writing about in the 1890s.  [. . .] So our own lives have been echoed, I think in the art we’re writing about in very poignant ways.”

For many viewers, no doubt, the exhibit will serve as an introduction to painters lesser known than the likes of Seurat, Cezanne, Van Gough and Gauguin. It’s a substantial look at their work, including paintings on canvas, lithographs and other works on paper, two series of woodcuts by Felix Vallotton, and even birth announcements created by Pierre Bonnard and Maurice Denis.

Edouard Vuillard, The Green Bedroom, Rue Truffant, oil on board, about 1900-1901

There are families playing games, like checkers; people spending time with frolicking pets; people reading; people ignoring each other; people playing music, in private practice or reverie: so many of the activities famously taken up and shared on social media during our locked-down, COVID year.

Adding to that connection is the fact that Private Lives is the Museum’s first exhibit since the start of the Pandemic to draw significantly on works loaned from national and international collections. Both the Cleveland and Portland museums contribute significantly, but many works are on loan from museums and private collections around the US and Europe. There are more than 40 paintings and 110 works on paper. There was a time when a notation that something was on loan from (for example) the Van Gogh Museum of Amsterdam seemed perfectly normal. In post-pandemic art viewing, it is something to be grateful for.

The show also draws on the Museum’s recent acquisition of the Keithley Collection, which was announced March 11, 2020, just days before the pandemic shutdown went into effect.

Pierre Bonnard, Woman with a Dog, oil and ink on canvas, 1891

In their podcast conversation, Weaver-Chapin and Lemonedes Brown noted that it may be that the pets “steal the show.”  There are indeed many delightful examples, such as Pierre Bonnard’s Woman with a dog, which focuses on Bonnard’s sister and his cousin, at play with the family poodle. Their closeness and interest in each other reveal an intimate, friendly relationship—in contrast to three figures in a distant corner of the canvas, who clearly don’t have the same connection.

Felix Vallaton, The Flute, from Musical Instruments, woodcut, 1896

Various treatments of music are also a highlight. Felix Vallatton combines music and pets—specifically a cat—in his woodcut, The Flute. The print, from his series Musical Instruments portrays the flautist alone in the room, except for a curious cat, who has leapt up on the chest of drawers and is looking over the musician’s shoulder. The cat is just a detail in one print in a series about musical instruments and their players, but the detail is a compelling antagonist and creator of the intrigue: The Flautist responds with an arched eyebrow.

Felix Vallotton, The Violin, from Musical Instruments, woodcut, 1896

Indeed, Vallotton’s beautifully printed woodcut portfolios are a highlight of the whole show, for their fine craft, and their telling content.  The blacks are absolutely black. The whites are clean, with no chatter from the knife. The lines are sharp. Above all the scenes are evocative and telling. Other woodcuts in the Musical Instruments series include The Violin, its player slouching in a stuffed chair, defined by just a few fine lines, almost entirely in a shadow cast by a fire in the hearth. The player in The Cornet benefits from the opposite effect—the brass instrument’s bell pointed out toward the viewer, the brightest spot in the scene being the musician’s face with bulging cheeks full of wind, and the billowy sleeve of his white shirt. He seems to be working at it: not only does his face seem to struggle, but this is the only one of the prints wherein the musician is reading a written score. He seems to be practicing. All the rest of the image—his music stand, the wallpaper, a candle–is defined by just a few deft lines.

Felix Vallatton, The Cornet, from Musical Instruments, woodcut, 1897

The solitude of Vallotton’s musicians says something: These are not concert scenes or jam sessions, but instead lonely practice (in the case of the Cornet player), or musing (in the case of all the others). Playing music alone in the house can certainly be a rewarding and even joyful thing, even in the practice, but these prints seem to emphasize that the players are alone.

Many of the works in the show imply relationships, for better or worse, among the people represented. Edouard Vuillard’s The Green Room is a great example: At least two, but likely four figures are in the room. Two of them—a woman and a child, likely the artist’s relatives—are clearly paying attention to each other. The two others, though, both have their backs turned and are looking out of the frame, completely uninvolved.

Pierre Bonnard, Paris Boulevard at night, oil on paperboard, 1900

There’s a room dedicated to views of Paris, but not the cafes and glimmering lights of the cosmopolitan city. Instead, these are intimate views of places Bonnard and Vuillard seem to have to themselves–such as Bonnard’s view of a Parisian boulevard that seems to have been painted by looking out from his balcony, a view only he and his family could have had. The word “flaneur,” meaning one who walks around a city appreciating it for what it is, comes up in urban planning circles, and both artists apparently were dedicated to that art of urban wandering. It is something a lot of us did during the pandemic, appreciating the empty streets. Perhaps it is one more thing you will find in common with these artists of more than a century ago.

Private Lives: Home and Family in the Art of the Nabis, Paris 1889-1900, is on view at the Cleveland Museum of Art July 1 through September 19, 2021. CMA members free; adults $15; seniors and adult groups $10; students and children ages 6 to 17 $8; children under 5 free.

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.

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