The bourgeoisie: now there’s a subject for a nineteenth-century artist. In little more than a century, this newish class had gone from being comedic fast-talking Figaros to planet-altering overlords striding across the globe in search of a soul, status, and an appropriate self-image. What, aside from double-entry bookkeeping, lurked in the heart of the bourgeoisie, and how to represent its likeness?
Enter Félix Vallotton, striver son in a Swiss bourgeois family who came to Paris in 1882 and enrolled at the Académie Julian, a freewheeling alternative to the École des Beaux-Arts. He soon fell in with the Nabis (Hebrew for “prophets”), a group united in their esteem for Gauguin and Cézanne that included Bonnard and Vuillard. They preached spiritual renewal and, more productively, a jettisoning of the canvas’s illusionistic space in favor of stylization, lurid color, and an overt use of ornament. Bonnard and Vuillard took this approach indoors, turning bourgeois interiors into hallucinatory scenes.
As demonstrated by the paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s retrospective of Vallotton’s work, “Painter of Disquiet,” the artist was a fine colorist, on par with his better-known peers. Yet his signature contributions to modern art eschewed the riotous chromatic wallpaper of Bonnard and Vuillard—and even color in general. The artist’s great achievement was to revive woodcut printing in Europe. If it hadn’t been Vallotton, someone else would have done it, with half of Paris high on ukiyo-e woodcuts ever since Japan had been forcibly opened for commerce in the 1850s. But we’re lucky it was Vallotton, whose stark black-and-white prints, produced using matrices of soft pearwood, provide a singularly critical look at both private and public life.
Few artists have made the dark heart of the bourgeoisie more visually interesting, and none with such perfect economy of…