The Art of French Decorative Painting

By Groom, Gloria | USA TODAY, May 2001 | Go to article overview
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The Art of French Decorative Painting


Groom, Gloria, USA TODAY


"AT THE BEGINNING of the nineties, a war cry rang from one studio to another: `Away with easel pictures! away with that unnecessary piece of furniture!' Painting was to come into the service of all the arts, and not be an end in itself. `The work of the painter begins where that of the architect is finished. Hence let us have walls, that we may paint them over.... There are no paintings, but only decorations.'"

This statement, made by Dutch painter Jan Verkade, rousingly summed up the idealistic aims of a group of young French artists in the 1890s, who banded together under the banner of the "Nabis" ("prophets"). As seen in the Nabis' baffle cry, they rejected painting as an illusionistic window onto nature--a concept primarily associated with easel painting--in favor of an art of decoration. The result was a new kind of painting wherein the message was conveyed through formal means. It was also a way of expanding the boundaries of painting from the framed object to be exhibited and sold to an artwork intimately linked to the interior for which it was intended.

Professional colleagues and lifelong friends, Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis, and Ker Xavier Roussel were members of the Nabis for a decade. They were not effetes or bohemians, but progeny of middle- to upper-class parents. Roussel was the son of a wealthy homeopathic doctor; Vuillard was the coddled youngest child in a household run by his widowed and financially independent mother; and Bonnard was the son of a senior administrator in the War Ministry. Only Denis, the son of a railroad administrator, could properly be called working class. The four met while taking art classes at the Ecole des Beaux Arts and the alternative studio of the Academie Julian.

As Nabis, they looked to the hero of the avant-garde at that time, Paul Gauguin. From him, they learned that a painting should not be a window onto nature that is descriptive, but a window onto the soul expressed through symbols. Above all, they assimilated Gauguin's basic that all art is decorative, and that the artist's goals should not be limited by particular styles, scales, or media. In 1890, Denis published what became in essence the cornerstone of modernism: "It is well to remember that a picture, before being a war-horse, nude, or some other subject, is essentially a flat surface covered with lines and colors arranged in a particular fashion."

All four of the artists sought to break with academic tradition--and even the naturalistic assumptions of the Impressionists--to create works of unorthodox sizes and shapes in which the decorative elements of line and color took on an importance and meaning beyond that of the subject matter. Known as decorations, these extraordinarily beautiful and compelling paintings and folding screens--often intended for the apartments and mansions of enlightened patrons--represent both a departure from traditional easel painting and a return to the centuries-old idea of painting as an integral element in interior decor and inherently related to the wall.

In English, "decoration" connotes an art of surface appeal and limited importance. In Paris in the 1890s, however, it was not only a highly positive goal for artists, since it allowed them to experiment by altering subjects to suit a particular scale, format, or theme, but was in keeping with the larger nationalist movement to reinvigorate France's weakening prowess in the field of luxury and decorative arts.

In 1892, Denis clarified his ideas on decoration, writing, "I can picture quite clearly the role of painting in the decoration of the modern home.... I would want them to have a noble appearance, to be of rare and extraordinary beauty: they should contribute to the poetry of the human spirit, to the luxurious color scheme ... and one should find in them a whole world of aesthetic emotions, free of literary allusions...."

Denis affirmed that the strength of advanced painting and interest lies in an appeal to instinct and feeling through decorative line and color, no matter what the subject.

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