Next month Sotheby’s will be auctioning a particularly beautiful painting by a Swiss artist of the late 19th/early 20th century, whom you are probably unfamiliar with. Although not as famous or well-known in this country as some of his contemporaries and colleagues, like his friends Édouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard, who are well-represented in many American art museums, nevertheless his work is worth getting to know. It evokes that period from the end of the Victorian era up through World War I in a dreamy, introspective way, but with a modern point of view that should give us pause, when we assume that people of that time could not see the world in the same way that we do.
Félix Vallotton (1865-1925) worked in a variety of styles over his long career, and as a result the contrast between his earlier and later works can be quite astounding. It’s hard to believe that the artist who created this beautiful, highly realistic still life of fruit and flowers here in the National Gallery for example, is the same artist who created this Symbolist image of the Moon glowing through the clouds of a night sky, which is now in the Orsay. He was also quite prolific, so that you would probably never run out of works by him to look at and think about.
In 1913 Vallotton visited Moscow and St. Petersburg on a sketching holiday, looking for new artistic inspiration, and created a series of landscapes when he returned home. As you might imagine, a Swiss artist will generally have a pretty good idea of how best to go about painting snow, and Russia certainly offered Vallotton plenty of it. One of the paintings resulting from his trip, “La Néva, brume légère” (“The Neva, Light Mist”), is the highlight of Sotheby’s “Swiss Art/Swiss Made” sale in Zurich on June 27th. In this picture, Vallotton depicts a winter scene along the river Neva, which runs through the then-Russian capital of St. Petersburg.
While bleak and heavily atmospheric, there is nevertheless something hauntingly beautiful about this snow scene. There is a stillness to it, which will be familiar to anyone who has gone on a walk just after a snowfall, while the sky is still thick with clouds. What keeps it from being dull is the fact that Vallotton creates the monochrome image of a city in winter by, paradoxically, not using a monochrome palette. The foreground is all grays, blacks, and whites, but the background is a mixture of mauves, greens, and blues, which trick the eye into seeing them as a single color. In addition, as one’s eye makes its way down the picture, color gradually disappears entirely.
In this painting Vallotton also displays a masterful sense of how to compose a picture. Notice how there is a sharp division of the painting into three horizontal strips: sky, cityscape, and promenade. These strips are intersected by the bell tower of the Peter and Paul Cathedral, which juts up into the top 1/3 of the picture. This pulls the eye down toward the foreground figures of the lamp post and man in the hat, who stand parallel to each other and to the distant bell tower, while the buildings in the middle of the picture seem to almost skim across the top of the snow-covered wall, drawing the eye left-to-right and exiting the frame. The design is deceptively simple, made up of just a few basic forms and lines, but it is enormously effective.
When this picture was painted, World War I had not yet broken out, and Tsar Nicholas II was still on the throne. Within a few years, the elegance of St. Petersburg would be besmirched with the ugliness of leftism for decades to come. As a relic of a lost age then, Vallotton’s picture shows us Imperial Russia as it once was, which will no doubt draw the attention of private Russian buyers to this sale.
At the same time however, this picture is more than just a Swiss artist of the Gilded Age depicting a scene from old Mother Russia. In his representation of the sobriety of winter in a cityscape, Vallotton created a work of art that goes beyond specificity of time and place. Form and color are daringly but realistically simplified, almost to the point of abstraction, allowing the viewer’s eye to do all of the work, as would be true when out for a stroll on a snowy winter’s evening. It shows a modern understanding of light, landscape, and urbanism, and as a result, I think this piece has a broad, timeless, appeal.
Hopefully, the end result will be that this painting becomes part of a permanent, public museum collection, for all to enjoy.