I’d seen reproductions of Swiss artist Félix Vallotton’s work posted up all over the London transport network to advertise the recent exhibition of his work, and was determined to make it to the Royal Academy before the show ended on 29 September 2019.

Born in Lausanne, Switzerland, Vallotton left home for the French capital, Paris, at the age of 16. The RA’s exhibition guide says that Vallotton was described as the “very singular Vallotton”, and his versatility is astounding. He painted vivid and intense still lifes and landscapes, but was also well known for his piercing, satirical eye, his involvement with the resurgence of printmaking and his illustrations for satirical and left-wing journals. A contemporary of French artists Bonnard and Vuillard, he remained outside the mainstream.

The early still life above is brilliant in its technical virtuosity, with the hyper realistic reflective surfaces of the jug and the rumpled fabric. Later work included illustrations for the literary and artistic magazine La revue blanche, and his emergence as a prominent graphic artist.

Vallotton’s woodcuts were especially acclaimed, and a series of intense vignettes catalogued scenes of domestic intrigue and hypocrisy. For example, his work Cinq Heures, references the time, after work, when a bourgeois professional might call on his mistress at home before returning to his wife.

In a review in The Times, the critic Rachel Campbell-Johnston stated that Vallotton could be “an awful painter”, but I couldn’t disagree more. His technical skill is undeniable (as in the painting above), and when eschewing realism, his paintings are full of brooding intensity or knowing vitality. I loved the large, perhaps semi-ironic tryptych Le Bon Marché (which I was prevented from photographing, as the gallery hadn’t been able to attain permission to reproduce it) recording crowds in a 19th century department store, and the rise of incipient capitalism in Paris.

Later work focusing on interiors and home life retained that brooding and intense feel, following Vallotton’s marrage to the widowed, and rich, Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques. With the marriage came three step-children.

The painting reproduced at the bottom of the post below, The Red Room, Etretat, was modelled from a society photograph of his wife, but into it has been plonked Gabrielle’s baby niece, determinedly ripping a piece of paper into scattered pieces, and familiar enough for anyone who has spent time with small children. A pleasant domestic scene, though does it indicate a sense of unease at the disorder of family life?

In the painting Woman Searching through a Cupboard an uncanny feel is added to that feeling of domestic horror everyone has surely experienced while despairingly trying to unearth a crucial item when it’s long past bedtime.

Another painting, Le Ballon, shows a charmingly bonneted child chasing a ball, but the looming shadows from the over-arching trees lend a sinister feel to an evocation of childhood innocence. Parallels have been drawn between Vallotton’s output and the later work of Edward Hopper, and even Alfred Hitchcock. From 1904, however, Vallotton moved onto the female nude, and then landscape, and his arch subversion of the everyday largely disappeared from view.

All in all this was a fascinating and atmospheric exhibition of work by an artist I was unaware of before this year. His work is well worth searching out.

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