In 1888 a group of art students at the Académie Julian in Paris began to forge their own response to the Impressionist tradition. It was probably the critic Henri Cazalis who suggested the term Nabi, meaning prophet in Hebrew, as the name for his close-knit group of his painter friends, in order to reflect their aesthetic mysticism. The Nabis included Paul Sérusier, Maurice Denis, Pierre Bonnard, Paul Ranson, Henri-Gabriel Ibels, and René Piot (all Académie Julian students), and they were joined by Edouard Vuillard, Ker-Xavier Roussel, the Dutch artist Jan Verkade, Mogens Ballin from Copenhagen, the Swiss Félix Vallotton, the Hungarian József Rippl-Rónai, the Scottish James Pitcairn-Knowles, and the sculptors Georges Lacombe and Aristide Maillol. They shared philosophical and literary interests, and disliked the dominant academic styles advanced by William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Jules Joseph Lefebvre.

These avant-garde artists adopted an aesthetic philosophy that challenged conventional notions of picture-making, insisting that form and color had expressive power independent of the subject depicted. The Nabis continued the impressionists’ interest in subjects drawn from modern Parisian life, though members varied in their adherence to the group's spiritual underpinnings. They were greatly influenced by the work of Paul Gauguin and Émile Bernard, and by the reductive, decorative qualities of Japanese prints. They exhibited together in exhibitions at the Barc de Boutteville Gallery from 1891 to 1897 and established a playful brotherhood complete with a charter and monthly dinners in orientalized costume at which they presented their latest 'icons' or paintings.

A collaborative spirit characterized this group: Vuillard produced decorative settings including panels and screens for a variety of clients including the Natanson brothers. The artists designed programs, sets, and costumes for innovative theater companies such as the Théâtre Libre, the Théâtre d'Art and the Théâtre de L'Oeuvre. Printmaking was a very important part of their artistic activity and they contributed illustrations to journals including La Revue Blanche, __L'Escarmouche, and L'Estampe et l'Affiche. Their group activities waned by the turn of the century, but their ideas contributed to the wave of avant-garde movements that laid the foundation for the development of abstract art in the twentieth century.

Adapted from

  • DMA Label copy, Fall 2010.

  • "Pierre Bonnard: The Late Paintings," Dallas Museum of Art Bulletin (Fall 1984), 7.

  • Dorothy Kosinski, DMA Acquisition proposal (for Album de La Revue Blanche; 2006.47.1-13), 2006.

Fun Facts

  • Paul Gauguin lived in Tahiti when the Nabis group was most active. He never took part in their meetings or exhibitions, but was named as an honorary member.

Web Resources

  • The Nabis and Decorative Painting
    Read Laura Auricchio's essay on the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History through The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

  • Beyond the Easel, Exhibition Themes
    Read the contextual essays accompanying the 2001 exhibition, "Beyond the Easel: Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis, & Roussel: The Decorative Paintings" at the Art Institute of Chicago.