Paul SÉRUSIER | Portrait of Paul Ranson in Nabi costume [Portrait de Paul Ranson en tenue nabique]

France 1863 – 1927

Portrait of Paul Ranson in Nabi costume
[Portrait de Paul Ranson en tenue nabique]
oil on canvas
canvas 61.0 (h) x 46.5 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchase 2004
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

The group of Parisian artists who called themselves the Nabis was like other secret societies set up by idealistic young men. The PRB or Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood formed by painters and poets in England in the 1840s was another artistic cabal. As well as lofty talk about art and spirituality, the group dined and drank together, and had fun. ‘Nabi’ was a latinised version of the Hebrew and Arabic words for ‘prophet’, carrying the idea of ‘the future’. It also bore the meaning of ‘transformer’, ‘magician’—one who could change reality.

Sérusier founded the Nabis in 1888–89, and his friend Paul Ranson was a co-founder. He painted this portrait of Ranson dressed in Nabi costume in 1890. The earnest young artist is clothed in a blue gown with a flat gold collar and blue jewel. He wields a gilt sceptre, like a bishop’s crozier. The gown is almost certainly fantasy, as neither Madame Sérusier nor any other witness recalls any exotic attire, but some remember the sceptre as a decorative rod used in meetings.1 Symbols include the five-pointed star for truth, and the serpent for knowledge, evil or wisdom. Both men were interested in the occult, Theosophy and exotic religions, as well as aesthetic theories. Ranson was known as the ‘Red-bearded Nabi’, and is easily recognisable by his beard, his lorgnette, and chestnut hair. His right hand traces the unrecognisable text (probably Hebrew) of an illuminated volume with dark orange edges.

A lighter orange disc surrounds Ranson’s head like a halo, implying sacred knowledge and enlightenment. Light blue cloth and text, and mid-blue background, are strong colour complementaries to the painting’s orange and dark yellow hues. Widely read in the field of art, and an acquaintance of many contemporary modernist artists, Sérusier knew of the colour wheel and the argument that placing a colour next to its complementary opposite (red-green, yellow-violet, blue-orange) intensified both. As well as Seurat and the Divisionists who adopted this practice as fundamental to their work, many other painters of the time, including Gauguin and van Gogh, experimented with it.

Sérusier’s portrait of Ranson is unusual, both in subject and technique. He mainly painted landscapes with figures, particularly in Brittany in the early 1890s, where he looked to Gauguin (works 57, 62, 63, 67 and 70) and used smaller, parallel brushstrokes and variegated colours. Here Sérusier draws dark blue outlines around the forms and fills them in with large flat planes of all but unmodulated colour. This Cloisonnist technique also owes something to Japanese woodblock prints, known to Sérusier through Gauguin and exhibitions in Paris. Sérusier also animates the composition by sharply angling the three-dimensional elements of figure, book and sceptre. Ranson and his book are set sixty degrees away from frontality, while the sceptre presents an abrupt line at an opposite thirty degrees from vertical. This disposition invites the viewer into the painting—perhaps to partake of the mysteries?

Christine Dixon

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

  1. See Caroline Boyle-Turner, Paul Sérusier, Ann Arbor: U.M.I. Research Press 1983, pp. 37–38.