This painting has been requested for the forthcoming Félix Vallotton exhibition to be held at The Royal Academy, London and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York in 2019.
An Introduction by Ann Dumas
En promenade is an outstanding example of a small group of Parisian street scenes that Vallotton painted in the mid-1890s. From the point of view of a passerby, we observe the stately progression of a group of well-dressed Parisians along an empty street. The little girl in green who breaks free of the group introduces the light and humorous touch that we find in Bonnard’s contemporary suite of lithographs depicting Paris street life, Quelques aspects de la vie de Paris. The child’s foot that wittily echoes the principal woman’s tiny black-gloved hand is typical of Vallotton’s gift for the telling detail and brings to mind the man’s rapacious hand in his celebrated woodcut L’Argent of 1897-98.
Vallotton had arrived in Paris from his native Switzerland in 1882, aged sixteen. The crisp realism of his earliest work displays a precocious talent and by the 1890s he became part of the Nabi group of artists led by Bonnard and Vuillard and the circle of avant-garde writers and artists around the influential journal La Revue blanche. As an acute observer of urban life, Vallotton, like his Nabi comrades, was an heir to the Baudelarian flâneur, the engaged yet detached onlooker who could capture that particular quality of ‘modernity’ — life on the Paris street, a subject he had already explored in a suite of zincographs, Paris intense, published in 1894.
The assertive sense of design that he achieves in En promenade has much in common with the printmaking for which he is celebrated. The way he divides the space is reminiscent of the composition of the woodcuts, a block of dark against a block of light, while the cropping, strongly defined contours and flat, opaque colours reveal the influence of the Japanese prints that he and other Nabi artists admired. Unlike the flux of the Impressionists’ Parisian scenes, Vallotton’s composition is detached and stylised. From an everyday, passing moment, he distils an indelible and utterly compelling vignette of modern life in fin-de-siècle Paris.
-Ann Dumas, Curator, Royal Academy of Arts, London.
Painted in 1895, En promenade forms part of a small series of colourful works created by Félix Vallotton examining the hustle and bustle of life on the streets of fin-de-siècle Paris. The artist was fascinated by the psychology of the crowd, the dynamic movements of people as they milled along the streets of the metropolis, and the seemingly endless array of connections and unconscious interactions which occurred in the grand boulevards and thoroughfares of the French capital. The theme provided Vallotton with almost continuous inspiration over the course of the last decade of the nineteenth century, emerging in his drawings, sketches, prints and paintings as lively, sometimes frantic, crowd scenes, or as highly focused spotlights on individual characters as they make their way through the city. Revelling in the myriad of interactions possible in the bustling streets, the fleeting moments and the passing glances that can occur between strangers, the sense that everyone is living their lives completely independently from one another and yet sharing the same space for a fleeting moment, Vallotton eloquently conveys an impression of the sensory delights of the Paris for the watchful flâneur.
Vallotton’s deep-seated interest in the comings and goings of the street truly blossomed in 1895 when he received a commission from the bibliophile, writer, publisher and journalist, Octave Uzanne, to illustrate the anthology Badauderies parisiennes - Les rassemblements, physiologies de la rue. Drawing inspiration from his own strolls through the capital’s Latin Quarter, where he was living at the time, Vallotton created thirty illustrations for the publication in which an array of characters traverse the boulevards, pushing their way through crowds in the rain, or stopping for a moment, their attention captured by the antics of a street performer. Creating overlapping, interweaving patterns of people, Vallotton imbues each of the images for the book with a sense of the constantly changing character of the streets, as people flow through the city, intermingling for a split second before carrying on their way. Each of the relief prints was accompanied by a short story or narrative vignette, from authors including Félix Fénéon, Paul Adam, Tristan Bernard, Thadée Natanson and Victor Barrucand, each of whom were asked to respond directly to Vallotton’s illustrations.
In En promenade, the apparent spontaneity of the figures’ poses lends the scene a ‘snap-shot’ effect, as if it has been captured in an instant by a camera, catching the idiosyncratic movements of the crowd while they remain oblivious to the artist’s watchful gaze. The young girl in the mint dress is shown mid-stride, her leg frozen at a forty-five-degree angle as she dashes along the pathway, while the woman in the deep green shawl turns away from her companion, her attention caught by the child as she passes by. The blonde woman in the magenta cape and hat, meanwhile, keeps eye contact with the woman opposite her, oblivious to everything else going on around her. Her raised hand suggests she is in the middle of telling a story, the flow of the tale causing her to gesture unconsciously as she remains completely absorbed in the act of story telling. With these divergent sightlines, Vallotton generates a sense of the dynamism of the crowd, as people’s paths overlap and cut across one another, causing disparate groups to form, converge and disperse as they stream along the pathway.
Like most of his fellow Nabi artists, the development of the hand-held Kodak camera in the 1890s led Vallotton to experiment increasingly with the photographic image, exploring the technology’s potential to record fleeting moments observed by chance, which could then be studied at length in the studio. Most importantly, the camera opened the artist’s eye to new ways of observing the world – Vallotton’s photographs were often framed in highly particular ways, capturing scenes from unusual viewpoints and employing a sharp cropping technique to create a sense of movement beyond the edge of the image. In En promenade, this effect is heightened by the asymmetric arrangement of the composition and the placement of the figures to the extreme left of the painting. Huddled tightly together in a condensed space, the group of figures suggests the press of the crowd, the polite asides as one quickly brushes past a fellow stroller, that are the frequent experience of the individual in the city. At the same time, a large portion of the street remains completely empty, with only the young girl running along the path suggesting that this is a temporary occurrence, which will change at any moment and become filled with people.
Vallotton takes care to detail the stylish costume of each of the individuals present in the composition, from the elegant white feather of a hat, to the bright blue bow in someone’s hair, the sheen of an elegant top hat, to the subtle play of textures in a cape. Indeed, one of the most striking details of the painting is the intricate pattern of white lace that adorns the neckline of the forest green shawl worn by the woman next to the lamppost. In this way, Vallotton allows his characters’ costumes to play a central role in his composition, distinguishing each of the figures as a member of the stylish bourgeoisie in the process, to whom fashion and clothing were inextricably linked to their identity. However, while their outfits are highly distinct, the artist eschews any sense of individuality in his rendering of the figures’ facial features, instead casting them as Parisian ‘types,’ a representative of the numerous gentlemen and well-to-do women who could be seen going about their business along the street on a daily basis. Indeed, the same characters reappear in several different street scenes from the late 1890s, identifiable by the bold colours and patterning of their clothing, the individual details of their outfits recognisable in a myriad of different settings.