Felix Vallotton was born on December 28, 1865 in Lausanne, Switzerland. Born into a bourgeois Protestant family, it was expected that his art education would occur at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. Instead, Vallotton left Lausanne in 1882 to attend the less traditional Académie Julian, where he studied under Jules Lefebvre. Initially producing academic-style portrait work such as those he observed in the Louvre, Vallotton used his later time at Académie Julian as an opportunity to study printmaking and woodcuts.
Vallotton’s time in Paris was marked by the dawn of the Belle Epoque, and he spent time in popular Montmartre cafés with artists such as Henri Tolouse-Lautrec. Throughout the 1890s, Vallotton worked almost exclusively in woodcuts. From 1892, he became associated with a group of artists known as the Les Nabis. This group sought spiritual renewal and a turn away from the realism art style in favor of high stylization, vivid colors, and flattened space with high amounts of ornamentation.
Felix Vallotton took the interests of Les Nabis further, importantly reviving Japanese ukiyo-e style woodcuts with strong lines, bold colors, and simplified forms. Many of Vallotton’s subjects featured intimate interior scenes of nudes, bathers, romantic moments between couples, and musicians playing their instruments. His best known series, called Intimacies, featured 10 woodcuts with private marital moments hinting at adultery. Vallotton was also an illustrator for many books throughout the 1890s.
Beneath all of the stylistic aspects of his works, Vallotton used his art as political commentary, mocking the bourgeoisie by showing the secret scandalous underbelly of the outwardly respectable social class. Other political messages, such as showing support for Alfred Dreyfus, were printed in political and literary magazines, such as La Revue Blanche. This radicalism lasted almost a decade, until 1899 when he married a wealthy, bourgeois widow; Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques. This escalated his career due to connections, giving him a new opportunity to exhibit his work and become a naturalized citizen of France in 1900.
Vallotton had painted throughout his entire career, but shifted his focus to oil painting at the beginning of the 20th Century. This work featured the same simplified realist manner as his printwork, with landscapes and still-lifes joining his previous subjects of nudes and interiors. He also painted portraits featuring his wife alongside the Parisian cultural elite including Gertrude Stein and Paul Verlaine.
In the 1910s Vallotton exhibited his work regularly. He also returned to woodcuts to create anti-war imagery, and was eventually accepted in 1916 to a group of artists who visited the front lines to witness the drama of war up close. These woodcuts depicted the Western Front with little of the aesthetic vigor previously undertaken. The last 10 years of his career saw a decline in his success, and Felix Vallotton died on December 28, 1925 at the age of 60. His range of artistic influences makes him hard to categorize, but his contributions to reviving woodcuts inspired a new generation of artists and remains a mainstay in modern art.