‘’Sounds, colours and words have a miraculously expressive power beyond all representation and even beyond the literal meaning of words’’. – Les Nabis

Les Nabis is a collection of French artists who shared a fondness for Paul Gauguin and Paul Cezanne that was active around 1887 – 1900. Derived from a Hebrew term meaning prophets, they believed themselves to be prophets of modern art. The artists include Pierre Bonnard, Paul Sérusier, Paul Ranson, Maurice Denis, Felix Vallotton and Edouard Vuillard.   Paul Sérusier started the movement. Les Nabis Is the continuation of impressionism.  They believed in a more conceptual than a standardized approach to art.

The Rise 

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The Les Nabis movement started when Paul Sérusier traveled all the way to Pont Avon school to meet Paul Gauguin, an impressionist. He wanted to spread an aesthetic message owing to Gauguin’s idea of symbolism. Under his guidance, Sérusier produced a rough sketch on the cover of a cigar box. It was a vibrant and bright portrayal of the Bois d’ Armor. The bold use of color and loose representation set it apart from other styles of art. Later popularly came to be known as the Talisman, which marks the beginning of the movement. The painting remains as evidence of symbolism. With its pure hue of purple, vermilion, and Veronese green, this French painting inspired other artists to join the movement.

Style and Features

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Les Nabis art is a depiction of nature with a combination of metaphors and symbols. Their work was flat patches and bold colors. The artists of Les Nabis unite by their less defined style. They philosophized bringing a narrative meaning to their paintings and removing boundaries between decorative art and easel painting. Their style is bold but simplified. The Les Nabis paintings often feature textured surfaces with the use of varied brush strokes. The artists also took inspiration from contemporary literature- Romantic and symbolist poetry. The characteristic feature of the paintings was their focus on the use of bright colors rather than mimicking the actual colors of the object. With realism put aside, the paintings emphasized literary theory and mysticism.

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The Les Nabis paintings were decorative schemes specific to interiors, adding value and meaning to them. They not only continued to paint on traditional surfaces like canvas and panels but spread their hands over other surfaces like velvet, cardboard, and screens. People often referred to them as a cult rather than groups of artists. In a book written by Sérusier, he stated-if it is not a cult, it ain’t worth it. His eerie yet creative circle was a passionate part of the cult. They took inspiration from the broad spaces of uninterrupted color, thick outlines, and bold patterns featured in the Japanese prints.

Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard are two of the most influential artists who carried on the principles of symbolism even after the movement ended.

‘Draw your pleasure, paint your pleasure and express your pleasure’. – Pierre Bonnard

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The French artist Pierre Bonnard is also an illustrator and printmaker. A barrister by profession, this original Les Nabis painter always had a passion for art. He joined an art school where he met two other significant artists – Vuillard & Maurice Denis. He is known for his stylized decorative qualities, intense use of colors yet having flat dreamlike quality. While he believes that the principal subject is the surface that he works on, he emphasizes the background, colors, and style. He painted landscapes, urban scenes, portraits, and intimate domestic scenes. Pierre Bonnard’s work showcases in the Los Angeles country

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Pierre Bonnard leaned more towards painting domestic scenes and his everyday life involving his wife, Marthe.  In The Bath (1925) represents a routine carried out by the two in their lives. Marthe, his wife, took long baths owing to her chronic pain. Bonnard found a strange beauty in this action. Overwhelmed by it, he expressed his emotion throughout. The painting is affectionate and boasts a sort of subtlety in intimacy. 

Edouard Vuillard 

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Edouard Vuillard, a prominent member of Les Nabis, was born in 1868. He was trained in various art institutions and was deeply influenced by Paul Gaugin, among other impressionists. Vuillard concentrated more on textures and patterns with color as a medium to experiment on them. He made paintings that assembled areas of pure color and interior scenes. He was chiefly impressed by Japanese prints. His art was intimate, consisting of domestic sights, home studio consisted of close friends and family. He used contrasting patterns, small brush strokes, and broken paint applications.

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In most of his paintings, Vuillard elevated the everyday life of his mother. He considered his mother as his muse. Even in her absence, he tries to bring her presence to the paintings. In one of his paintings, The Flowered Dress, he shows his mother and her acquaintances’ sewing. Vuillard does not throw light on the other women in the background. While the other women are silhouettes, his mother dresses in a black kimono printed with clematis-shaped flowers. Vuillard had a deep sense of domesticity and intimism. Many paintings feature objects placed on shelves and desks. New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum, and Jewish Museum preserve his collection.

The Fall

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Les Nabis held their final show in 1899 at Galerie Bergheim. According to Vuillard, they were overshadowed by the various other genres. There was rapid progress in modern movements. He stated the society welcomed cubism and surrealism much before they reached their goal. Though their style was not too appealing to new age artists, they hold a notable place in many successors. They stayed loyal to the artistic tradition of the impressionists.

The Impact

Even after the disband of Les Nabis, Bonnard and Vuillard continued their style of intimism. The movement played a prominent role in the rise of other movements like fauvism, Cubism, and surrealism. Many contemporary artists feel indebted to Les Nabis, like Howard Hodgkin, Lisa Yuskavage, and Wadia El Mahdy. The Nabi art paved the way for modernists who were interested in traditional forms of art. Les Nabis was short-lived, but its impact was long-lasting


Vismai is a driven student leveraging studies in architecture and a keen observant of fine details in art forms who has had a passion for writing and poetry since forever. Along with sketches, she considers writing as a valuable tool to interpret buildings.

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