Les Nabis (French pronunciation: [le nabi]) were a group of Post-Impressionist avant-garde artists who set the pace for fine arts and graphic arts in France in the 1890s. Initially a group of friends interested in contemporary art and literature, most of them studied at the private art school of Rodolphe Julian (Académie Julian) in Paris in the late 1880s.
In 1890, they began to participate successfully in public exhibitions, while most of their artistic output remained in private hands or in the possession of the artists themselves. By 1896, the unity of the group had already begun to break: Homage to Cézanne, painted by Maurice Denis in 1900, recollects memories of a time already gone, even before the term Nabis had been revealed to the public. Meanwhile, most members of the group, including Maurice Denis, Pierre Bonnard, and Édouard Vuillard, could stand on their own artistically. Only Paul Sérusier had problems to overcome – though it was his Talisman, painted at the advice of Paul Gauguin, that had revealed to them the way to go.
Les Nabis originated as a rebellious group of young student artists who banded together at the Académie Julian. Paul Sérusier galvanized Les Nabis and provided the name; he also disseminated among them the example of Paul Gauguin. Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, and Maurice Denis became the best known of the group, but at the time they were somewhat peripheral to the core group.
The term was coined by the linguist Auguste Cazalis, who drew a parallel between the way these painters aimed to revitalize painting (as prophets of modern art) and the way the ancient prophets had rejuvenated Israel. Possibly, the nickname arose because "most of them wore beards, some were Jews and all were desperately earnest".
Les Nabis regarded themselves as initiates, and used a private vocabulary. They called a studio an ergasterium and ended their letters with the initials E.T.P.M.V. et M.P., meaning "En ta paume, mon verbe et ma pensée" (In your palm, my word and my thoughts.)
Meeting at Académie Julian, and then at the apartment of Paul Ranson, they preached that a work of art is the end product and the visual expression of an artist's synthesis of nature in personal aesthetic metaphors and symbols. Paving the way for the early 20th-century development of abstract and nonrepresentational art, they had in common with most progressive artists of the time the goal of integrating art and daily life.
Les Nabis artists worked in a variety of media, using oils on both canvas and cardboard, and distemper on canvas and wall decoration, and they also produced posters, prints, book illustrations, textiles and furniture. Considered to be on the cutting edge of modern art during their early period, their subject matter was representational (though often Symbolist in inspiration), but was design-oriented along the lines of the Japanese prints they so admired, and Art Nouveau. Unlike those types[clarification needed], however, the artists of this circle were highly influenced by the paintings of the Impressionists, and thus while sharing the flatness, page layout, and negative space of art nouveau and other decorative modes, much of Les Nabis art has a painterly, non-realistic look, with color palettes reminiscent of Cézanne and Gauguin. Bonnard's posters and lithographs are more firmly in the Art Nouveau, or Toulouse-Lautrec manner. After the turn of the century, as modern art moved towards Abstraction, Expressionism, and Cubism, Les Nabis were viewed as conservatives and, indeed, were among the last group of artists to stick to the roots and artistic ambitions of the Impressionists, pursuing these ends almost into the middle of the 20th century. In their later years, these painters also largely abandoned their earlier interests in decorative and applied arts.
Among the artists who considered themselves Nabis was Maurice Denis, whose journalism put the aims of the group in the eye of a progressive audience, and whose definition of a painting – "a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order"[this quote needs a citation] – expressed the Nabis approach. His Théories (1920; 1922) summed up the Nabis' aims long after they had been superseded by the fauve painters and by cubism.
Other Nabis were Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, Ker-Xavier Roussel, Paul Ranson, and Félix Vallotton. The sculptor Aristide Maillol was associated for a time with the group. The Scot James Pitcairn-Knowles and the Hungarian Jozsef Rippl-Ronai lived together in Paris during the first decade of the 20th century and also turned to glass-blowing and woodcarving. The post-Impressionist styles they embraced skirted some aspects of contemporary art nouveau and Symbolism. The influence of the English Arts and Crafts Movement set them to work in media that involved crafts beyond painting: printmaking, book illustration and poster design, textiles, and set design.
Meyer de Haan, Maternity: Mary Henry Breastfeeding, 1890.
Félix Vallotton, The Mistress and the Servant, 1896
Paul Ranson, Nabis Landscape, 1890
Georges Lacombe, Marine bleue, Effet de vagues, 1893
Paul Sérusier, Boys on a Riverbank, 1906
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