Les Nabis Revealed: The 8 Artists Who Redefined Modern Art as We Know It

Les Nabis - Édouard Vuillard, The Flowered Dress (1891) Édouard Vuillard, The Flowered Dress (1891) (Wikimedia Commons).

Energized to achieve a “beauty beyond visible reality,” the Nabis group of French artists challenged convention to create a new artistic vision, as they harnessed Paul Gauguin’s synthetism to envisage an exciting alternative that would usher in the age of modern art.

“Neo-traditionalism cannot waste its time on learned and feverish psychologies, literary sentimentality requiring an explanation of the subject matter, all those things which have nothing to do with its own emotional domain”

Maurice Denis

Disaffected by the representational painting at the Académie Julian, Paul Sérusier founded Les Nabis in 1888 with Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, and Maurice Denis. Their bold, simplified style, and unconventional outlook developed existing themes in exciting and original ways, playing a large part in the transition from Impressionism to early Modernism at the turn of the century.

Believing that a work of art was not a depiction of nature, but instead a synthesis of metaphors and symbols, Les Nabis (the Hebrew word for prophet) shared a desire to renew the art of painting, but varied in individual styles. Experimenting with the artistic possibilities of colour lithography, the group embraced decoration as painting’s primary function as they sought to break free from naturalism and chart a new path for modern art.

Key Characteristics of Nabis Art

Rejecting the Renaissance ideal of providing a representative window to the world, Les Nabis ignored illusions of depth, abandoned linear perspective, and embraced broad planes of color, typical of Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.

Where Les Nabis differ is in the subject matter. It was uncommon in art of the day to focus on everyday and unremarkable scenes, but that’s exactly what Nabis artists did. And it’s this everydayness that gives scenes their vibrancy. In the words of Maurice Denis, painting “is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order.”

Meet the Masters

Pierre Bonnard

Not only a leading figure in the transition from Impressionism to Modernism, Pierre Bonnard was also a founding member of Les Nabis. His early work was influenced by Paul Gauguin, Hokusai prints, and he was known as an Intimist. Bonnard adopted the Nabis focus of everyday scenes in his painting, Coffee, which depicts a woman sipping from a cup in a fleeting snapshot of daily life.

He also painted many nudes of his wife Marthe de Méligny. Intimate paintings like The Bath (1925) and Nude in the Bath (1925) were part of their daily routine. Favoring intense colours, Bonnard’s painting shone bright, while in his late works color almost enveloped the subjects of his paintings.

Edouard Vuillard

Les Nabis - Edouard Vuillard - Les Couturieres (1890).

Edouard Vuillard – Les Couturieres (1890). Sold for £3,401,250 via Sotheby’s (February 2012)

Renowned for his intimate subjects and subdued colors, Edouard Vuillard’s quiet scenes of everyday life offered a peak into Parisian homes and gardens. Vuillard shared a studio with Bonnard, but his greatest muse was his mother, and he produced over 500 paintings of her.

Vuillard and Nabis painters formed a close connection to Symbolist theater, and this was important to Vuillard’s artistic development, as he produced sets and programs for Aurélien Lugné-Poe’s Theatre de l’Oeuvre (1893). “I go on with my work according to my conscience, endeavouring to express what I feel and what I love, and I have no other goal,” Vuillard explained.

Maurice DENIS – Femme couchée dans les rochers (1892). Sold for €68,000 via Artcurial (October 2023)

Maurice Denis

“Art is no longer a visual sensation that we gather, like a photograph, as it were, of nature. No, it is a creation of our spirit, for which nature is only the occasion,” explained Maurice Denis. Inspired by Gauguin’s brightly colored forms, an essence of Marine avec vache (1888) is evident in Denis’s Taches du soleil sur la terrace (1890) and Solitude du Christ (1918).

Denis embraced Neo-Classicism following the breakup of the Nabis, but his influence in the transition between Impressionism and Modern art is evident his 1890 manifesto, Definition of Neo-Traditionalism. And while Sérusier and Bonnard might be the best-known Nabis painters, it was Denis who was their eloquent spokesperson.

Paul Sérusier

After visiting Paul Gauguin in Pont-Aven in 1888, Paul Sérusier was inspired. From that moment he was determined to spread the aesthetic message of his interpretation of Gauguin’s Symbolism and spearhead the Nabis movement.

Seeking to express emotion and spirituality through color free from its descriptive function, Sérusier produced a Symbolist-infused sketch under Gauguin’s guidance that followed his newfound principles. It found a home with Les Nabis and his brightly colored interpretation of the Bois d’Amour at Pont-Aven painted on a cigar box would become The Talisman (1888). Composed of patches of vivid color, it’s recognized as the first Nabis painting.

Félix Vallotton (1898). Sold for £756,000 via Sotheby’s (February 2004)

Félix Vallotton

Les Nabis - Félix Vallotton – Le baiser (1898).

Félix Vallotton – Le baiser (1898). Sold for €787,400 via Sotheby’s (October 2023).

Singular in style yet comparatively unknown, Félix Vallotton was nicknamed ‘the foreign Nabis’ thanks to his Swiss nationality. His paintings were defined by flat areas of color, hard edges, and simplification of detail, as seen in Bathers on a Summer Evening (1892–93) and Moonlight (1895), while his woodcuts were characterized by broad masses of black and white. But once the Nabis members went their separate ways in 1900, Vallotton swiftly abandoned this approach.

His marriage to the wealthy Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques in 1898 elevated him to the social class he once derided – and it greatly influenced his art. Now financially secure, Vallotton discarded his Nabis principles and devoted himself to painting portraits, still-lifes and landscapes.

Paul Ranson

Les Nabis - Paul Ranson | Les Princesses à la terrasse (1894).

Paul Ranson – Les Princesses à la terrasse (1894). Sold for €417,000 via Sotheby’s (November 2017).

From Paul Ranson’s Montparnasse studio, Les Nabis would congregate to discuss ideas every Saturday. There would Ranson shared his interest in theosophy, magic, and occultism, which set him apart from his fellow Nabis.

Together with Sérusier, Ranson was more serious, mystical, philosophical, and Neo-Catholic than his Nabis contemporaries, while his art drew influence from Art Nouveau. After Les Nabis disbanded, his paintings embraced mythology, witchcraft and anti-clerical subjects, but even as a Nabis, his art focused on iconography from world religions and Celtic legends.

Ker-Xavier Roussel

The brother-in-law of Édouard Vuillard, Ker-Xavier Roussel’s art reflected the array of styles under the Nabis umbrella. Roussel set himself apart with his mythological subjects and an 18th-century Rococo style that has been compared with Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

Together, Roussel, Vuillard, and Bonnard toured Italy in 1899, before settling in L’Étang-la-Ville, Yvelines where his paintings embraced the rural landscape and mythological Greek scenes. In later years, Roussel abandoned small format pictures typical of the Nabis in favor of large, brightly coloured paintings in a Post-Impressionist style.

Aristide Maillol

Aristide Maillol - Monument à Claude Debussy.

Aristide Maillol – Monument à Claude Debussy. Sold for $2,652,500 USD via Christie’s (May 2018).

At the suggestion of Gauguin, Aristide Maillol joined the Nabis. And so Maillol exhibited with the group in 1895 and 1896 in Paris. Sharing a Nabis interest in the decorative arts, Maillol worked in tapestry, but his declining eyesight curtailed this, so he began producing terracotta sculptures, which led to him working as a sculptor – and you might be familiar with his work.

If you’re ever in the Metropolitan Opera House, New York City, keep an eye out for three of his bronzes gracing the grand staircase; Summer (1910–11), Venus Without Arms (1920), and Kneeling Woman: Monument to Debussy (1950–55).

A Lasting Influence on Modern Art

The bold, simplified style, and unconventional outlook of Les Nabis has enjoyed a lasting legacy. Not only did their reinterpretation of Gauguin’s synthetism offer an exciting alternative to Renaissance ideals, but it also ushered in modern art.

Their innovation of developing existing artistic themes brought about the transition from Impressionism to early Modernism. But the speed of this transition even took members of the Nabis by surprise. “The march of progress was so rapid,” explained Vuillard in 1937. “Society was ready to welcome Cubism and Surrealism before we had reached what we had imagined as our goal. We found ourselves in a way suspended in the air.”

Where Can I See Les Nabis Artwork?

Fine collections of Nabis artwork can be found around the world. The Musée d’Orsay, Paris houses French art from the 19th and early 20th centuries, including works by Bonnard, Vuillard, and Denis, while the Tate Modern, London, includes works by some key Nabis figures.

Across the Atlantic, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City hosts art by Denis and Vallotton, while Nabis artists can also be found in The Art Institute of Chicago and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, and this article’s lead image by Edouard Vuillard is in the Museu de Arte de São Paulo.

Sources: Tate.org.uk – Les Nabis | Tate.org.uk – Édouard Vuillard | Artsy.net – The Radiant Paintings of Les Nabis, the Movement Started by Bonnard and Vuillard | Tate.org.uk – Eight Essentials to Know About Pierre Bonnard | MetMuseum.org – The Nabis and Decorative Painting | Holburne.org – Edouard Vuillard The Poetry of the Everyday | MoMA.org – Édouard Vuillard | TheArtStory.org – Maurice Denis | Forbes.com – Meet The Nabis At The Phillips Collection In Washington, D.C. | RoyalAcademy.org.uk – A Beginner’s Guide to Félix Vallotton | RoyalAcademy.org.uk – Félix Vallotton, Painter of Disquiet | Guggenheim.org – Aristide Maillol | MyModernMet.com – Meet Les Nabis, the “Prophets of Modern Art” Who Transformed Turn-Of-The-Century Painting