Born in Lausanne in 1865, Vallotton (1865–1925) studied in Paris and became closely associated with the Nabis artists’ group, which also included Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard. Vallotton worked as an illustrator and journalist, and also wrote plays that – like his paintings – were highly provocative and critical of bourgeois conventions. He lived in Paris during the Belle Époque – a society oscillating between the poles of decadent spectacle and severe economic depression. Having risen to the ranks of the bourgeoisie through marriage, he then turned his unsparing gaze on the double standards of the Parisian bourgeoisie, the raging battle of the sexes and the new self-assurance of women. In his paintings and prints he exposes his protagonists by placing them in carefully constructed, stage-like settings.
Vallotton’s nudes and interiors depict scenes of exposure and adultery, concealed by heavy curtains and surrounded by knickknacks and cheap ornaments; his protagonists are caught up in a tightly woven net of betrayal and oppression. In stylistic terms, it is above all the artificiality of his subjects that makes his works so unsettling: still lifes characterised by fields of intense colour, empty landscapes defined by bold chiaroscuro, and portraits painted with uncustomary harshness.
In their veiled eroticism and starkly realistic style of painting, Vallotton’s nudes are surprisingly modern. For his contemporaries, Vallotton’s open depiction of the conflict between human desire and moral codes, his complex atmospheric weave of distance and proximity, often overstepped the boundaries of acceptability. He surveyed his naked models in an almost psychoanalytic manner, portraying them realistically — and sometimes unflatteringly — with a slight squint, unevenly shaped breasts or a low hairline. In 1936, the collector Hedy Hahnloser-Bühler commented upon Vallotton’s portraiture: “Nobody was keen to be dissected by that unrelenting eye, so careful not to leave any physical or moral blemish unseen.”