Félix Vallotton. Part 1- The early years and portraiture

Self portrait by Félix Vallotton (1897)
Self portrait by Félix Vallotton (1897)

The artist whose paintings I am looking at in this blog is the Swiss-born artist and printmaker Félix Edouard Vallotton.

Vallatton was born in Lausanne, on the shores of Lake Geneva, in December 1865, three days before the New Year. His parents  and grandparents hailed from the little town of Vallorbe in the Swiss canton of Vaud.   His family’s social status was given as conservative middle class.  Félix’s father, Adrien owned a chandlery and grocery shop and would later branch out as a chocolatier and own and run a chocolate factory.   Félix and his older brother Paul lived at the family’s home in Lausanne, situated in the centre of town in the small town hall square, the Place de la Pelouse.  Family memories of the young Félix Vallatton told of him being a very delicate and sensitive child and because of this and the presence of the smallpox epidemics, which had ravaged Europe, he was probably cosseted by his family.  Félix, as a young boy enjoyed to draw and paint and besides his normal scholastic subjects, he attended evening classes for drawing.

Self portrait by Félix Vallotton (1885)
Self portrait by Félix Vallotton (1885)

In 1882, at the age of sixteen, having completed his school education, he persuaded his father to take him to Paris so that he could learn more about painting and drawing.  He had passed the entrance exam to the École des Beaux Arts but decided that he would prefer to attend the Académie Julian because of its teaching of real art and naturalism.  His father managed to have his son enrol at the prestigious academy, which at the time had the most respected art tutors.  Félix was to study under three great French figure painters, Jules Joseph Lefebvre, Guillaume Bougereau and Gustave Boulanger.  As a student he was known to be hard working but very reclusive.  His tutors looked upon him as a model student and had great hopes that he would win the Prix de Rome prize as the outstanding student of the year.  For young Vallotton life was not all fun and games and monotony had begun to set in, even at this early stage.  He wrote to his brother Paul;

“…So far I have not seen much apart from some museums.  The botanical gardens, which did not make much impression on me, one or two theatres, which I visited with father, the Pantheon, which is magnificent and which affords a marvellous view on a fine day.  Every day I follow the very same route and see the very same things…”

In an early letter to his brother there is a hint of lack of self-confidence when he tells his brother how things are developing academically.  He wrote:

“…The professor is pleased with me, but I am not pleased with myself and sometimes feel sad……My heart sinks when I think of what I am about to study and realise that I am nothing compared with the great artists who startled the world at the age of fifteen…”

Vallotton may not be confident in his own ability but one of his tutor’s assessment of him was quite different.  Lefebvre told Vallotton’s father that:

‘…Monsieur, I hold your son in high esteem, and have only had occasion to compliment him up to now.  I think that, if I had such a son, I would not be worried about his future at all and would unhesitatingly be prepared, with the bounds of possibility, To make sacrifices over and over again, in order to help him…”

Lefebvre ended the conversation with a prediction:

“…I am so interested now in those who are prepared to work – your son is one of those and I repeat he will bring you fame…”

People who suffer from lack of self confidence, often need somebody to be there to boost their morale and Vallotton had that in the person of Charles Maurin, a fellow student at the Académie Julian, albeit eight years his senior.  Vallotton and Maurin became friends and part of a letter from Maurin to the younger Vallotton highlights the elder artist’s moral support.  He wrote to Vallotton:

“…Whatever you lack it is certainly not artistic flair.  It is rather some quality of character (please allow me to mention this to you).  (I would like you to be as open with me).  From your last letter it emerges that you lack strong will and you are creating difficulties for yourself.   But that is not the case.  You do have willpower but it does not manifest itself…”

Life as an art student in the big city was a struggle for Vallotton.  He had constantly to turn to his father for money to pay for lodgings, to buy food and pay for models.  He tried to find some work to help his financial situation but it was never enough.  In 1888 Felix wrote to his parents bemoaning his lot in life and one can sense an air of depression

“…I practically never go out.  I work from seven in the morning until five in the afternoon.  This has not produced any great results so far, everything must work out soon…”

Portrait of Monsieur Ursenbach by Félix Vallotton (1885)
Portrait of Monsieur Ursenbach by Félix Vallotton (1885)

In 1885, at the age of nineteen, Vallotton’s luck changed.  It was due to his portrait of one of his neighbours, Monsieur Ursenbach, a mathematician and Mormon.  That year, he submitted the Portrait of Mr Ursenbach to the Salon jury and with his former tutor, Jules Lefebvre, one of the jurists, the work was accepted and subsequently displayed.   It is an interesting work.  The setting for the portrait is the sitter’s colourless and featureless room.  Ursenbach can be seen sitting in his armchair in a stiffly upright pose, looking uncomfortable with a stern expression on his face.  His hands rest steadily upon his knees as he stares off to the left of the painting.  It is this unusual demeanour of Ursenbach which probably caught the eye of visitors to the Salon exhibition.  Critics were divided on its merits but for Vallatton himself when he later listed all his paintings in chronological order, this was the first on the list.

The Artist`s Parents by Félix Vallotton (1886)
The Artist`s Parents by Félix Vallotton (1886)

Like many portrait artists before him, the young artist completed many portraits of his own family members.  His family portraits, such as the 1886 one of his parents, The Artist`s Parents,  featuring Alexis and Mathilde, were tender and showed the closeness he was to his parents.

Paul Vallotton by Félix Vallotton (1886)
Paul Vallotton by Félix Vallotton (1886)

In the same year that he completed the portrait of his parents he completed a portrait of his brother Paul.

Self portrait by Félix Vallotton (1891)
Self portrait by Félix Vallotton (1891)

Over the years, he also painted many self portraits and one of my favourites is his 1891 painting, Mon portrait.  Portraiture was a way Vallotton began to earn money and he completed many commissions in Paris and back in his home town of Lausanne.  Many of his Paris commissions were attained through his Swiss ex-patriot friends who were living in the French capital.  One such friend and fellow student was the Swiss artist, Ernest Bieler and it was he who persuaded the artist and close acquaintance, Auguste de Molins, to write a letter of introduction on behalf of Vallotton to Renoir and Degas.  De Molins had known the Impressionists as he had exhibited works at the First Impressionist Exhibition.  In his letter to Degas, de Molins wrote:

“…My protégé is absolutely alone in Paris without any connections at all apart from his contacts at the studio, which is far from enough to satisfy his intellectual needs.  The studio is all very well, but there comes a time when close relations with a master are somewhat more important even far more important…”

Vallotton never used the letters of introduction.

Felix Jasinski in His Printmaking Studio - Felix Vallotton (1887)
Felix Jasinski in His Printmaking Studio – Felix Vallotton (1887)

In 1886 Vallotton met Felix Jasinski, an engraver and painted his portrait, entitled Felix Jasinski in His Printmaking Studio.  Jasinski went on to teach Vallotton all about the art of engraving and the two would work together on many projects.   Vallotton’s own catalogue of works began to list his engravings from 1887 and according to a letter to his parents in late 1889 he told them that he had begun to work on commissions for a publisher.  Money was to be made through his engraving work and by 1891 the amount of wood engravings completed by Vallatton was almost more that the number of paintings he had completed.

The Port of Pully by Félix Vallotton (1891)
The Port of Pully by Félix Vallotton (1891)

His early works were not restricted to portraiture. Vallotton, being Swiss-born, loved to paint landscapes featuring the mountains and views of his homeland, especially around Lausanne and Lake Geneva.  Often they were for commissions given to him by Swiss people but often he would keep them for himself.  In 1891 he completed a painting, Port of Pully, one of the eastern suburbs of the city of Lausanne.  The painting depicts the lake front  located on the shores of Lake Geneva.

Outskirts of Lausanne by Félix Vallotton (1893)
Outskirts of Lausanne by Félix Vallotton (1893)

Another beautiful landscape work by Vallotton was completed in 1893 and was entitled Outskirts of Lausanne.  In the painting we view Lake Geneva from a meadow.  The yellow and greens of the foreground are in contrast to the still blue water of the lake in the background.  There is an air of tranquillity about this depiction.  One can imagine sitting in the meadow, which is bathed in sunlight, and just relaxing and leaving the cares of the world behind.

The reason for me writing a couple of blogs about Félix Vallotton was that I was fascinated by the heading of a 2007 article in The Guardian newspaper by Julian Barnes which shouted out:

Better with their clothes on

The neglected, enigmatic Swiss artist Félix Vallotton was a fine painter of still lifes, landscapes and portraits. Shame about his dreadful nudes, writes Julian Barnes.

and so in my next blog I will continue with Vallotton’s life story and look at more of his paintings including some of his “dreadful nudes” !!!

Much of the material I have used for this blog came from an excellent book entitled Félix Vallotton by Nathalia Brodskia, an art historian attached to the hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

Author: jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.

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