New York

Felix Vallotton

Hirschl and Adler

It was a very good idea on the part of the Hirschl and Adler Galleries to mount a large show of the work of Felix Vallotton. Vallotton was not by any means a major artist: his interest is rather that, like many good minor artists, he embodies in his work so much of what was going on during his time. The drawback to this is of course the possibility that so many different tendencies might be represented in the work that one cannot find any coherence in the artist’s output as a whole. This is certainly what happened with Vallotton, and whether or not one was disappointed in the show must have depended on what one expected from it. Personally, I found the show very interesting, since what I expected was a kind of anthology of what was being done from about 1890 to 1910, and that is what I found.

The masterpiece of the show was certainly The Red Room. One saw how close it is to Vuillard and early Bonnard, how it anticipates the work of Balthus, and how very much it owes to Degas. I have already said elsewhere that I think the entire development of the painting of interior scenes was fundamentally affected by Degas’ Interior (The Rape) in the McIlhenny Collection, suggesting that as a result of it interior scenes became claustrophobic, morbid and erotic; and that is certainly true of The Red Room. What is odd about Vallotton is the childlike clumsiness (and, in effect, the innocence) of the drawing, and this quality is to be found in most of his work—indeed, if the work has a unifying characteristic, this would be it.

I think it would be wrong to see in it any particular idiosyncrasy. This trait comes from Courbet and is characteristic of Courbet’s kind of naturalism; in fact, it may be characteristic of Switzerland—Meyer Schapiro, in a study of Courbet’s naiveté, showed the influence that a Swiss illustrator of children’s books had had on Courbet and established the connections between this stylistic trait and certain intellectual currents which, for all I know, may still have been vigorous in Vallotton’s generation. Certainly Vallotton had studied the illustrations of children’s books, and the fine sampling of woodcuts in the present show demonstrates how much he derived from them. That Courbet was very much on Vallotton’s mind can be seen in other ways, too: for instance, in the landscape that is reproduced as Number 7 in the catalog to the show; in the motif (if not the color) of Fourteenth of July; in the Bon Marché triptych—the idea that a department-store counter was a fitting subject for a painting of ambitious dimensions is surely owed to Courbet, as, in this case, is the execution, too; and so on. Perhaps one can call Vallotton’s realism idiosyncratic after all, in the sense that, while it derives wholly from earlier developments and modes that by Vallotton’s time were well established, it was a bit unusual to find a painter of that generation who was realistic to quite that extent and in quite that way!

Jerrold Lanes