Félix VALLOTTON | The ball (Corner of the park with child playing with a ball) [Le ballon (Coin de parc avec enfant jouant au ballon)]

Switzerland 1865 – France 1925

The ball (Corner of the park with child playing with a ball)
[Le ballon (Coin de parc avec enfant jouant au ballon)]
oil on card, laid on wood panel
panel 48.0 (h) x 61.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Bequest of Carle Dreyfus 1953
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

A most ordinary scene of everyday life—a child playing with a ball in the park—is dramatised by the artist’s high viewpoint, patterning and reduced range of colours. We look down on a little boy or girl (opinions differ) dressed in a white smock and straw hat, running after a red ball. Its circular shape is accentuated in the larger yellow hat, and repeated in another light brown ball lying in the trees’ shadow to the left. The image is split vertically into shade on the left and sunlight on the right. It is divided again diagonally, into an ochre foreground and green and black upper ground. The light brown earth or grass is rounded like the curvature of the Earth itself, and we, the viewers, see it as a bird would, or as though from a tower.

The dynamic rendition of the floating smock is echoed in the child’s shadow, which seems to move ahead of the trees’ dappled shade reaching across the grass. Two women, one dressed in blue, the other in white, lead the eye on an opposite diagonal axis, from the child to the upper left. Like most of Vallotton’s paintings, there is little colour or tonal modulation; rather he employs flat planes broken up into decorative shapes. The graphic quality comes from his other career: Vallotton made dynamic black-and-white wood engravings, with no half-tones, just positives and negatives.

Like most of the Nabis, Vallotton admired Japanese woodblock prints, and adapted many themes and stylistic conventions from them. Ukiyo-e depicted ‘images of the floating world’, the ephemeral, sensory pleasures of city life. Unlike Vuillard’s and Bonnard’s images of public gardens however, Vallotton did not decorate each view with ornamental patterns. He reduced rather than augmented the visual elements, and smoothed paint into a material parallel to reality.

Vallotton’s is an outsider’s view, and never one of unalloyed delight. He was born in Switzerland, and in Paris was named the ‘foreign Nabis’. The child’s playground is not rich green grass, but has been burnt dry and brown by the summer sun. He plays alone, supervised by the adults glimpsed in the background. The deserted ball hints at other children, now gone. It is a city pleasure for the offspring of the bourgeoisie, this solitary ballgame, and any pastime less rowdy or companionable can hardly be imagined.

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