Abstract Origins in Vuillard and Les Nabis

For art patrons living in Los Angeles abstract art may be a bit of a mystery. How did the intellectual style come into being? In the late 1800s, the art world was moving away from centuries of determinedly representational art, heading more and more toward the abstract art that would be a fixture of the 20th century.

"Le corsage rayé" by Edouard Vuillard

“Le corsage rayé” by Edouard Vuillard

From Impressionists to Les Nabis

The Impressionists started artists on the road toward abstraction by shifting their painting style away from delivering exact detail in their representational work, in favor of portraying the play of light and color in their subjects. From there, the works of Paul Gauguin and other Post-Impressionists inspired the group of artists called Les Nabis.

The Nabis believed that shape and color could represent experience, and that their work should explore the spiritual or personal sources of art. They had come together as a group while attending the Académie Julian. Eventually, Maurice Denis, Pierre Bonnard, and Édouard Vuillard rose to be the most famous artists from the group.

Vuillard and the Interior Self

Most of Vuillard’s works feature interior subjects, which became a symbol for him of the interior self. His style flattened the designs of this composition, and used this to focus on the internal, personal viewpoint. He used shape and color to convey aspects of experience that could not be easily communicated in words.

Vuillard’s Influence

The change in outlook and artistic attitudes inspired by Vuillard’s work helped prepare the groundwork of modernist and abstract art. His sense of composition carried more of the communication than the actual representation. In “Le corsage rayé”, the bold shape of the woman’s arm and top of her outfit stand out strikingly, drawing the viewer’s eye from her hand in the lower right upwards and then to the right, to look at the faces of the two women. The plants of the arrangement draw the eyes back downward and repeat the cycle.

Even though the subject of his work is still representational, Vuillard’s loose style shows the beginning edge of abstract thinking. The colors are not quite “realistic,” while the shapes imply more than deliver the details. Vuillard conveys more his internal expression of the subject rather than an objective representation.

Abstract Shaping

Vuillard’s artistic practices would inspire and shape the way abstract artists would develop their imagery. As modern art moved to more and more abstract approaches, the interior impulses of the artist, which was Vuillard’s main interest, gained precedence.

"Rising Green" by Diana Hobson

“Rising Green” by Diana Hobson

Diana Hobson’s “Rising Green” draws the viewer’s eyes in a similar pattern as Vuillard’s painting. The lighter colored splashes around the block of green, pulls upward from the left and then to the upper right. The circling round brings the viewer back to the rising dark green block. Without a representational subject, the painting relies on the colors, shapes, and composition to engage the viewer, and lift them out of a passive reaction.

Vuillard’s interest on the internal expression of the artist contributed to the thinking behind many abstract works.


“Le corsage rayé” by Edouard Vuillard, 1895. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon. Image included here under Fair Use Practices for purposes of instruction and information.

“Rising Green” by Diana Hobson, 1978. Copyright Diana Hobson. Used by permission.


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