Switzerland 1865 – France 1925
Self-portrait (My portrait)
[Autoportrait (Mon portrait)] 1897
oil on card
card 59.2 (h) x 48.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchase 2007
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Born into a conservative middle-class family in Lausanne, Switzerland, Vallotton studied the classics before moving to France. During his early years in Paris he spent many hours at the Louvre, admiring the works of earlier artists such as Hans Holbein, Pieter de Hooch, Albrecht Dürer and Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, who would act as exemplars throughout his career. In 1893 Vallotton noted, ‘I have been thinking about … those exquisite masters, whose brilliant ideas, put down on canvas in perfect form, have an immediate impact even today, four centuries later.’1 In fact, his own style gradually developed a flavour of Northern European realism which alienated him from many of his contemporaries.
While his earliest paintings were rooted in the academic tradition—he exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1886—during the 1890s Vallotton joined the avant-garde. However, his stiff, reserved personality prevented him from integrating easily into the Parisian art world.
Vallotton was always interested in faces, particularly his own. During his career he made no less that nine self-portraits, the earliest when he was seventeen. His shrewd perspicacity and often caustic aesthetic is evident in the portraits, especially the self-portraits, where his personal insights are accurately translated onto the canvas with finesse and precision. In this 1897 work, Vallotton makes no attempt at pictorial effects, leaving the background a sober taupe, and firmly focusing on his own face, where his reserved character is written so clearly.
Vallotton’s paintings reveal a flatness of colour with hard edges and, increasingly, a sober, often biting realism, a development very much independent of his fellow Nabis. Many of his colleagues viewed his austere style as retrograde, too much reflecting the art and academic values of the past. In 1898 Signac commented that:
Vallotton’s paintings are anti-picturesque. He thinks that by employing a calculated and conservative technique he is imitating Holbein and Ingres, but he only succeeds in imitating Bouguereau’s worst pupils. The result is ungainly and unintelligent.2
Contemporary critics were also disparaging, accusing Vallotton of ‘paint[ing] like a policeman’,3 and describing his self-portraits as ‘solid enough in construction, but … dead and lifeless’.4 However, his precise techniques inspired a future generation of artists, such as the New Realists of the twentieth century.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
- Félix Vallotton, Gazette de Lausanne, 4 May 1893, quoted in Albert Kostenevitch, Bonnard and the Nabis, New York: Parkstone Press International 2005, p. 185.
- Quoted in Kostenevitch, p. 185.
- ‘Kleine chronik’, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 23 March 1910, quoted in Sasha M. Newman, Felix Vallotton, New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery; New York: Abbeville Press 1991, n. 55, p. 290.
- ‘Independent Gallery. Paintings by Felix Vallotton’, The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, vol. 37, no. 212, November 1920, p. 264.