Pictures of forbidden desire: rediscovering the art of Félix Vallotton

Félix Vallotton's Le mensonge (The Lie), from the Intimacies series (1897-8)
Félix Vallotton's Le mensonge (The Lie), from the Intimacies series (1897-8) Credit: Musées d'art et d'histoire, Ville de Genève

Belle époque Paris is a phrase that conjures bright lights, can-can dancers and café-concerts. In the twilight years of the 19th century, the French capital was tumbling toward modernity: optimism, prosperity and spectacle were the order of the day.

Yet beneath all that glitter and decadence ran a darker undercurrent of bitter unrest, creeping industrialisation, unemployment and political turbulence. It made rich pickings for a writer or an artist – and of those there were an unprecedented number on hand. Newly established as the artistic centre of the world, Paris was crackling with strident voices.

Félix Vallotton was just 16 when he entered this maelstrom, having left his native Switzerland in 1882 to study art at the liberal-minded Académie Julian. At its premises in the fashionable knot of streets near the Grands Boulevards, he met the artists Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard, Maurice Denis and Paul Sérusier – together they became known as the Nabis.

It was through this loosely Symbolist group that Vallotton, whose little-known work will be the subject of a grand survey at the Royal Academy this month, became part of a wider circle of intellectuals and reformists contributing to an influential periodical called La Revue Blanche, or “The White Review”.

During its short existence, from its first issue in 1889 until 1903, this edgy magazine loomed large in the cultural life of Paris. It operated from a room on the upper floor of the Maison Dorée, an opulent restaurant whose clients included the future King Edward VII and, earlier, the composer Gioachino Rossini.

Felix Vallotton (1899) by Alexandre Natanson Credit: Alamy

With the novelist André Gide as its literary critic, a roster of writers that included Proust, Chekhov, Apollinaire and Verlaine, and a brilliantly brave, anarchist editor – Félix Fénéon – La Revue could hardly fail. “It was satirical, ironic, sharp,” says exhibition curator Ann Dumas. “Stylish, though not luxurious and fairly Left-wing; also anti-colonial, secular, pacifist – streets ahead of its time.”

Between championing artists such as Picasso and Gauguin and serialising contemporary novels, La Revue mixed poems, economic reporting and a wide range of polemics. (Its name was intended to reflect that synthesis, referring to the fact that all the colours of the spectrum combined create white.)

During the Dreyfus affair, the magazine came out in support of Alfred Dreyfus, the former army captain falsely accused of treason for selling military secrets to the Germans, sparking a political crisis that raged for more than a decade.

More than any of this, though, La Revue Blanche was revered for its outstanding illustrations – which is where Vallotton came in. He was taken on by the magazine’s founders – the brothers Alfred, Thadée and Alexandre Natanson – in 1894, after Thadée had seen one of the artist’s woodcut prints.

Revue Blanche covers by Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec Credit: Alamy/Getty Images

Printmaking was enjoying a dizzying resurgence at the time. A confluence of advances in printing techniques, imaginative publishers and bourgeois collectors made for a bullish market, into which Vallotton dove headfirst. He is credited for near single-handedly reviving the tradition of woodcuts, a medium which had languished since its 16th-century heyday. These had a sharp, vital look to which he added unusual, snapshot-like perspectives, a reflection of the frenzied, discombobulating texture of modern life.

“Vallotton got into printmaking largely because he could make a living out of it – he was very poor,” says Dumas. “But he turned out to be very, very good at it.” For seven years, he was La Revue Blanche’s chief illustrator, though they employed other artists too, notably Toulouse-Lautrec, Bonnard and Vuillard.

Vallotton’s prints chronicle Paris’s crowds and coffin-bearers, theatregoers and milliners, but probably his best known commission from the Natansons was a series of 10 woodcuts entitled Intimacies, from 1897-8 – all are included in the RA show. They explore the tiny, dagger-like hypocrisies, the deceits and disappointments of lust and love among the bourgeoisie. In jet-black and white, men and women couple and uncouple amid suffocating, shadowy interiors. Each seethes with sadness and menace. Not for nothing has the RA subtitled its exhibition “painter of disquiet”.

La visite (The Visit) by Vallotton (1899) Credit: Royal Academy

La Revue Blanche became more than a magazine. The Natansons operated as an extended family or salon; high-minded bohemians could come to Thadée’s home on the rue Saint- Florentin to discuss the issues of the day. His wife, Misia, charmed them all. Vallotton painted her more than once, but he wasn’t as smitten as some – Vuillard, in particular, was obsessed.

Vallotton might have applied his acerbic wit to the bourgeois institution of marriage, but he did not hesitate to join its ranks when a smart opportunity presented itself. In 1899, he married the wealthy Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques, a member of the Bernheim-Jeune family of art dealers, thus securing both his financial security and an outlet for his work, ever after.

Not long after La Revue closed in 1903, he abandoned prints and exchanged polemics and politics for the peace to be found by painting in his studio, though he pursued it with the same intense enthusiasm he had once devoted to his woodblocks. When Vallotton died, in 1925, the number of paintings he left behind – portraits, interiors, nudes, landscapes and still-lifes – was almost 1,700.

Félix Vallotton is at the Royal Academy, London W1, from June 30