A gift of the Nabi: symbol and metaphor in the everyday

From an exhibition of 60 works – 40 paintings and works on paper and two portfolios of prints –  of the Nabi bequeathed to the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC by Vicki and Roger Sant: 

Bonnard to Vuillard: The Intimate Poetry of Everyday Life



The Nabi were not a homogenous group when it came to their styles. 

The Sants focused on the ‘intimist’ aspect of their work: the hovering intimation of metaphor and symbol in the everyday activities and lives of their people.





Hommage to Cézanne  1900, oil on canvas.  Maurice Denis. 

Musée d’Orsay from whose website this image made by Hervé Lewandowski for the musuem.

The painting in this painting is by Paul Cézanne which had been owned by Paul Gaugin.

The Symbolist painter Odilon Redon, the focus of attention on the far left.  Paul Sérusier, the founder of the Nabi in the center talking to Redon. 

Left to right at the back: Edouard Vuillard, the critic Andre Mellerio wearing a top hat, Ambroise Vollard behind the easel, Maurice Denis, Paul Ranson, Ker-Xavier Roussel, Pierre Bonnard with a pipe.

  Marthe Denis, the wife of Maurice Denis, on the far right.



Here a sample of works collected by the Sants made by these artists during their Nabi phase. 


All French.  

Paul Ranson, 1864-1909

Félix Valloton, 1865-1925; born Switzerland

Pierre Bonnard, 1867-1947

Ker-Xavier Roussel, 1867 -1944

Henri-Gabriel Ibels, 1867-1936, 

Édouard Vuillard, 1868-1940

Maurice Denis , 1870-1943



The Nabi were not about impressions or abstraction.  



The influences on them were extensive and varied by artist and by training.  Nor were they unappreciative of the skills and techniques of academic French painting against some of whose values  they were reacting in their work.


Japanese prints, a novelty in France at century’s end, were of great interest to their work. 


They are sometimes considered a branch of the Symbolist movement, so close were their guiding ideas.


Paul Gaugin and Paul Cézanne were their near-elder mentors.  






The Ham, 1889, oil on canvas. 

Paul Gaugin, 1848-1903. The Phillips Collection, Washington DC

  Gaugin painted with Paul Cézanne in 1881 and is believed to have increasingly turned to Cezanne from 1889 onwards.


The Nabi were about immediate reality

presented with the conscious artifice of a canvas or a piece of paper covered with  their ordering of forms and colour

and of the contrasting patterns in which the human eye is said to delight.






Afternoon in the Garden, 1891, oil and pen and ink on canvas.

Pierre Bonnard



to reflect that immediacy,

and to intimate the immanence of something other:  symbol and metaphor



They disregarded vanishing-point perspective.

They flattened their characters and played with positive and negative spaces to create tension or movement or quiet.

They made maximal use of colour.


Passerby, 1897, oil on cardboard.

Félix Valloton




Their supporting institutions were the art school, the Académie  Julian, which lasted 100 years until 1968.

La Revue Blanche, an avant garde magazine of art, theater and literature started by the Brothers Natanson in 1889. 

And the print portfolio, L’Estampe Original brought out by Eric Marty from 1893-95, to which many of the Nabi contributed work. 


Félix Valloton contributed prints using the woodcuts whose artistic uses he revived.

Published from 1893 to 1895, L’Estampe Originale was among the most popular examples of this medium even if it survived only a short time.




main-imageL’Estampe originale, Album I; lithograph printed in six colors on folded wove paper. 

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1864 – 1901, French.

Metropolitan Museum image of a lithograph also in the bequest to the Phillips Collection.

Here the printer, Père Cotelle ,has presented the cabaret performer Jane Avril with a newly printed artwork. 


The Nabi lasted ten years until 1900 when a last exhibition was organized.  Its members went their separate ways. 

The popularity of their work seems never to have declined



Their time may well have come into force again

because symbol and metaphor have re-emerged as a potent language to guide us through the disturbed, somewhat incoherent landscapes of our every day lives. 





The Garden, 1894. Executed in glass by Tiffany in 1895.
Ker-Xavier Roussel.




Poets are circulating widely; 

story-tellers, songsters, mythographers, shamans, magicians, clowns, artisans working in many materials;

and scatterlings guiding us through wilderness, pointing to trophy cascades; to the complicated biomechanics of vast networks of the natural world;

and the new-old lure of pilgrimage routes with their historic lore;

prophets, also, speaking now in the voices of very young adults.  






The Garden, 1894. Executed in glass by Tiffany in 1895.
Ker-Xavier Roussel.


All using the language of metaphor and symbol

because lies are now habitually described as truth in our public parlance;  and storms as blue skies

to make the everyday language of our democracies gasp and choke. 

In addition, the god-virus seems, for the time being, to be sucking the air out of our sense of a future. 



The record of the Nabi is a treasury of  what there is in this moment now,

even now, still, again, and always.






Duncan and Marjorie Phillips,  founders of the Phillips Collection in 1921, were the first in the United States to collect ‘modern’ painting.  Among whom work by those who had been the Nabi.






Movement of the Street, 1907, oil on canvas, collected by the Phillips  in 1931. 

Pierre Bonnard



and Paul Cézanne: early and late






The Garden at Les Lauves, 1906, oil on canvas.  Acquired 1955 by the Phillips Collection.

Paul Cézanne, 1839-1906, French









Stork and Four Frogs, c. 1889, three panel screen, distemper on canvas.

Pierre Bonnard;  based on a fable by Jean de la Fontaine






Boulevard, c. 1890, gouache, watercolour and ink on simili Japan paper. 

Pierre Bonnard






In the Garden, c. 1891, oil on canvas, 

Édouard Vuillard






Madame Vuillard Cutting Bread, c. 1891-92. 

Édouard Vuillard







Wedding Party under the Japanese Lanterns, watercolour, gouache and ink on paper, 1893. 

Maurice Denis





Rabbits, design for wallpaper, 1893, distemper on paper. 

Paul Ranson






A for Amitié  (Friendship), 1893, watercolour and ink on paper. 

Pierre Bonnard  

Part of a never completed album for children, Bonnard said he wanted to ‘make things and people speak…’  Here the bond between man and animals








Sewing Workshop, c. 1893-94, oil on canvas (with light interference)

Ker-Xavier Roussel





The Suitor,  oil on millboard panel, 1893.

Edouard Vuillard, Smith College Museum of Art, Northhampton, MA. Image from the artstory.org website


Vuillard’s mother, on the right,  made corsets professionally and may also have been a dressmaker.  Her daughter, Marie, on the left, married Ker-Xavier Roussel, who is entering the room.






Needlepoint tapestry, wool on canvas, 1895. 

Paul Ranson





Girl with Her Dog, oil on cardboard mounted on cradled panel, 1895. 

Pierre Bonnard.   Photo from the net.






Circus, lithograph printed in 4 colours, no date. 

Henri-Gabriel Ibels





Yellow Gable, c. 1895, oil on cardboard. 

Maurice Denis 





Woman with a Green Plaid Shawl, c. 1895, oil on cardboard. 

Édouard Vuillard






Scene with Red Rooftops, c. 1895, oil on board. 

Pierre Bonnard





The Musicians (Les Musiciennes), c. 1895,  oil on cardboard. 

Maurice Denis.  Photo from the site of the Washington Post









Nannies Promenade or Frieze of Carriages, c. 1896, four lithographs printed in five colours originally mounted as a four-panel screen

Pierre Bonnard





In the Square, 1897, lithograph printed in 5 colours.

Henri Evenepoel, 1872-1899, Belgian and not generally associated with the Nabi.






Cafe au Bois de Bologne, c. 1898, distemper on paper mounted on cardboard.

Édouard Vuillard






Vuillard’s Mother in Profile, 1898, oil on canvas mounted on board. 

Édouard Vuillard






 In Front of the Tapestry: Misia and Thadée Natanson, Rue Saint-Florentin, 1899 

Édouard Vuillard






Interior with Red Bed, 1893, oil on cardboard.

 Édouard Vuillard




Street Scene, 1895

Félix Vallotton.  Photo from the site of The New Criterion





The Door and the Sewing Table, c. 1900, oil on cardboard. 

Édouard Vuillard






Interior with Screen, 1906, oil on paper mounted on canvas. 

Pierre Bonnard






At La Divette, Cabourg, 1913, reworked 1934, distemper on canvas (the detail photo from the website of the Criterion).

Édouard Vuillard, The Phillips Collection.

Annette Natanson, Lucy Hessel, and Miche Savoir at breakfast 


2 thoughts on “A gift of the Nabi: symbol and metaphor in the everyday

    1. It is hard to grasp the courage of these men going up against the established order although they did have the precedent of the Impressionists……….

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