Felix Vallotton’s Reinvention of the Woodcut

by Arthur on Tuesday, February 1, 2011

in 19th-Century,Art,Print making,Technique

Meier-Graefe, Julius. Felix Vallotton, Biographie: Des Kuenstlers nebst dem Wichtigsten teil seines Bisher Publicierten Werkes & Einer Anzahl Unedierter Originalplatten; De Cet Artiste avec la Partie la Plus Importante de son Oeuvre Editee et Differentes Gravures Originales & Nouvelles. Berlin/Paris (J. A. Stargardt/Edmond Sagot) n.d. (ca. 1898).  Freitag 12821. [41835]

Painter, playwright, critic and man of society—Felix Vallotton applied his talents broadly.  For a single decade at the end of the 19th-century, however, he enjoyed fame above all else as a print maker.  Vallotton’s boldly reductive approach to the woodcut is credited by many art historians of his time (and ours) as having modernized and revitalized the form in Western art.

Like many European artists of the late 19th Century, Vallotton was deeply enamored with the reduced palette and suggestive forms of Japanese woodcuts.  His artfully naive compositions from the period demonstrate the extent to which popular Ukiyo-e prints exerted an influence on his painting. In 1891, Vallotton began to experiment with the medium directly, producing an interpretive woodcut of Paul Verlaine that represented a clear break with the established practices of European printmaking.

The work was a critical success, and Vallotton went on to produce idealized portraits of other major figures in the arts and letters, all but abandoning the tonal cross hatching techniques other print makers in the West had used to create modulated areas of light and shadow.

Vallotton’s mature style embraced stark contrasts and dramatic tension.  He used the woodcut to explore various facets of fin de siècle Paris, from political intrigue and urban street life to shifting gender roles.  Julius Meier-Graefe, the eminent German art critic who helped to establish Pan, took an interest in the work.  In 1898 he published Felix Vallotton, Biographie, a dual translation French/German monograph on the artist that included a broad selection of the woodcuts and a compelling endorsement of his innovative style.

The monograph features imagery drawn from The Demonstration, Vallotton’s celebrated series from 1893-1895, which recorded the social unrest and anarchistic violence of the era, depicting assassins and anarchists,  executions and suicides.

Biographie also showcases the tender side of his work, including sensual female nudes, family scenes, and private moments between men and women.

Vallotton married Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques in 1899 and his attention largely returned to painting, with a focus on domestic scenes and landscapes.  He enjoyed continued popular success as an artist, becoming a mainstay of the Paris Salons and other major European venues, and later, serving as a commissioned artist for the French army during the First World War.

Vallotton died of complications from cancer just one day after his 60th birthday, on December 29th, 1925.  But the graphic influence of his woodcuts endures, with artists including Aubrey Beardsley, Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward and Raymond Pettibon showing hints of his characteristic style in their works. We’re pleased to offer a copy of the Meier-Graefe Biographie—from which all of the images in this post are drawn—in generally excellent condition. Click through the following link or e-mail us for more information.

FAB Item I.D. # 41835

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