Mary Weaver Chapin and Heather Lemonedes Brown—
Can a friendship forged in your early twenties change the course of your life and career? For members of the Nabi brotherhood, an association of painters in fin-de-siècle Paris, the answer was a resounding yes. Maurice Denis, Pierre Bonnard, and Édouard Vuillard met in late 1889 when they were young art students; in 1893, the acerbic Swiss artist Félix Vallotton joined their ranks, becoming an intimate part of their artistic and personal lives. Breaking free from the strictures of academic painting, which valued hyperrealistic depictions of conventional subjects, they sought a new, subjective art that would reflect inner experience. They adopted the moniker “Nabis,” a derivation of the Hebrew word for “prophets.” Although they never used this name publicly, it signaled both their hope for their project and their tongue-in-cheek belief in their ability to change the course of art history.
Friendships formed in young adulthood can be intense, enduring, and influential, and those between the Nabis were no exception. Not only did they exhibit together, but they enjoyed meals in the tiny rented apartment that Vuillard inhabited with his mother, attended the same musical soirées, visited each other’s country homes, and even flirted with their shared muse, the charming Misia Natanson, wife of their publisher and patron, Thadée Natanson. While they maintained distinct artistic styles, they freely exchanged their views and advice on art. Years later, Vallotton wrote about his relationship with Vuillard, noting that they were so closely associated in the 1890s that “the ideas of the one passed to the other like water from a carafe to a glass.” Letters record the close contact between the men, even after their careers took them in different directions in the twentieth century. Bonnard and Vuillard, in particular, remained in constant communication. In his last letter to Bonnard, written just a week before Vuillard died, he admitted, “If I wrote to you every time I think about you, our past, painting, etc., you would have enough letters to fill a library.”
Private Lives: Home and Family in the Art of the Nabis, Paris, 1889–1900 explores the art and relationships of these four men. Although the Nabi brotherhood contained other artists, Bonnard, Denis, Vallotton, and Vuillard shared the same intense scrutiny and transformation of home and family life. They sought to create an art of suggestion that drew meaning from ordinary surroundings and what Bonnard termed the “modest acts of life.” Thus, familiar interiors, close family members, beloved pets, and intimate friends were both the closest subjects at hand and those that offered the greatest wellsprings of sentiment and power. Following the work of philosopher Henri Bergson, the young Nabis believed that familiar objects and people accrue meaning and emotion over time. Even quotidian experiences such as a family dinner, a game of checkers with friends, or a musical gathering are perpetually new since they build on each previous encounter. Close attention to lived experience, in all its mundane and magical glory, earned them the title of Intimists.
Fittingly, for a book and an exhibition focused on close friendships, Private Lives was born from another attachment made by young people: the authors. We met while working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1997. We were both enthralled by the drawings and prints of the nineteenth century, a great wealth of which lay in the vault in our department. We quickly bonded, and even after our studies and lives took us to different cities, we remained in touch. Some years we may have only exchanged Christmas cards, while other periods we were able to visit in person, ask for professional advice, and share the joys of new marriages and new babies. As with the Nabis, we endured sorrows as well, mourning the loss of our fathers (to whom Private Lives is dedicated) and offering support.
The bedrock of our friendship supplied the necessary fuel to sustain our project when the coronavirus pandemic struck. We had completed the bulk of our research and travel in preparation for the show when we were sent home from our respective museums in March 2020. Ironically apropos for our subject, Mary set up shop in a bedroom while Heather created an office in her attic. It was in these locales that the book was written, edited, and proofread. We laughed about writing on the joys and challenges of private lives and family while also experiencing those joys and challenges during quarantine and the gradual reemergence into the world. The intimate, subjective views of dining rooms, family members, and pets of Bonnard, Denis, Vallotton, and Vuillard became mirrors of our own world. Some days reflected the joys of Bonnard’s “modest acts of life,” while others echoed the words of critic Camille Mauclair, who pointed to the “daily tragedy and mystery of ordinary existence.”
Private Lives: Home and Family in the Art of the Nabis, Paris, 1889–1900 delves into this brotherhood of nineteenth-century artists whose gaze—alternately sympathetic and caustic—focused on domestic life and personal experience. When we first conceived of the exhibition, we could have never imagined how much art and lived experience would mingle during the quarantine. We have emerged wiser thanks to the inspiring art of Bonnard, Denis, Vallotton, and Vuillard, and to our own steadfast friendship.
Mary Weaver Chapin is curator of prints and drawings at the Portland Art Museum. Heather Lemonedes Brown is Virginia N. and Randall J. Barbato Deputy Director and Chief Curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art.