Félix Vallotton’s series of prints Intimacies (Les Intimités), published in 1898 in La Revue blanche brought him fame. Reviving the traditional art of woodcut but depicting modern subjects, this series boosted the career of the Swiss-born artist in Paris. It might come as a surprise that in 1898 when Intimacies were made, Vallotton (1865-1925), then in his thirties, was engaged to be married. The wedding took place in the following year, he married Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques, a young widow with three small children. Looking at these woodcuts, which capture little dramas of marital life, we can admire how skillfully, often with just a few white lines and spots on black background, the artist managed to create intriguing scenes featuring couples in interiors. The titles provide clues as to the narrative, making the subjects less ambiguous, such as Money, The Lie, or The Irreparable, but they also leave us with the impression that the artist was perhaps feeling anxious or even frightened at the thought of his impending marriage.
Marrying a rich widow Vallotton was entering the world of French bourgeoisie with a set of preconceptions and maybe even fears, but at least he knew that his financial situation was going to stabilize. With financial security this marriage brought him, he could concentrate on painting. Although he gained recognition through the woodcuts in particular, around this time he stopped making them, producing only two more series – L’Exposition Universelle (1900), and This is War! (C’est la guerre!, 1915-1916).
His oil paintings of interiors contain elements of psychological tension, for example The Red Room (La Chambre rouge, 1898). The viewer observes the couple standing in the doorframe, but can only guess what is really going on between them. Is it a difficult conversation or something more sinister?
Departing from realistic manner of his early career, best demonstrated in Self-Portrait at the Age of Twenty (1885), painted while studying at Academié Julién, his style began to change when he became a member of the Nabis in 1893. Like other members of the group, (which included painters Bonnard, Vuillard, Serusier and others) he was partially influenced by Post-impressionism and Japanese woodblock prints, as seen in the Bathing on a Summer Evening (Le Bain au soir d’été, 1892-93). Its odd composition, clashing colours, unclear subject and even perceived ugliness attracted a lot of criticism at the time, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec even said that it ‘will probably be taken down by the police’.  Hanging next to this painting is The Waltz (La Valse, 1893), which was exhibited at the same 1893 exhibition at the Salon des Indépendants. Stylistically very different The Waltz is a charming scene showing couples dancing in what looks like a shimmering cloud of fairy dust.
Vallotton’s nudes were often considered as a poor match to his woodcuts and described as lacking beauty and emotions. Taking a look at his interpretation of traditional art subjects we can easily guess why contemporary public did not appreciate his innovative approach.
Take for example the painting titled Chaste Suzanne (La Chaste Suzanne, 1922), which diverts from the Biblical story of Suzanna and the Elders and from its traditional depictions in art. The elders sneaked upon innocent Susanna who was taking a bath, and then tried to blackmail her. Susanna was usually shown naked or half naked trying to cover herself (as in well-known examples by Rubens or Artemisia Gentileschi). In contrast, Vallotton’s Suzanne is a dressed-to-impress temptress, maybe even a gold digger wishing to catch a rich husband, but certainly not the victim.
Beyond the scope of the RA’s exhibition were Vallotton’s mythological paintings. His irreverent, satirical interpretation of characters from Greek mythology are among the most original ones in modern art. In his 1910 painting Perseus Slaying the Dragon mustached Perseus looks more like a circus strongman, the dragon is actually a crocodile, while Andromeda with the hairdo of a 19th century Parisienne crouching awkwardly has an unimpressed look on her face.
In 1914 Vallotton volunteered for military service, but was not accepted because of his age. He witnessed the front, however, after he managed to secure the post of the official war artist. As a result he produced his last series of prints This is War! (C’est la guerre!, 1915-1916). Although the series might resemble cartoon strips, Vallotton successfully captured the essence of the horrific experience shown from the point of view of combatants and civilians, once again supporting the view that it was the black-and-white prints rather than colourful oil paintings that the artist excelled at.
This is not to say that his paintings are any less interesting or of poor quality. Also on display are true-to-life portraits of his close friends and family, a couple of very realistic still-life paintings and less realistic but intensely atmospheric landscapes, including Moonlight (1895) or The Pond (1909). The exhibition brings together plenty of Vallotton’s works to fall in love with.
Félix Vallotton: Painter of Disquiet is at the Royal Academy, London until 29 September 2019.
References and sources:
 Fleur Roos Rosa de Carvalho, The Quintessence of Black and White. The Woodcuts, In: Félix Vallotton. Fire beneath the ice, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 2014, p.76
 Marina Ducrey, The Icy Vallotton?, In: Félix Vallotton. Fire beneath the ice, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 2014, p.20
 Fleur Roos Rosa de Carvalho, The Quintessence of Black and White. The Woodcuts, In: Félix Vallotton. Fire beneath the ice, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 2014, p.77
 quoted in: Katia Poletti, ‘My roots are in Paris’ Recognition in Paris, 1892-99, In: Félix Vallotton. Fire beneath the ice, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 2014, p.32
 Félix Vallotton. Fire beneath the ice, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, 2014, p.149
Exhibition website: https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/felix-vallotton