Switzerland 1865 – France 1925
Dinner, by lamplight
[Le diner, effet de lampe] 1899
oil on card, laid on wood panel
panel 57.0 (h) x 89.5 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchase 1947
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Here the emphasis on light and dark echoes Vallotton’s prints, which are dominated by bold black and white block motifs. Although the artist stopped producing prints in 1899 in order to concentrate on his painting, his work retained the same stark, often caustic, graphic style. Here the silhouetted figure of the artist dominates the centre of the canvas, flanked on his right by his new bride Gabrielle wearing a pink gown. On Vallotton’s left sits his stepson Max Rodrigues, stifling a yawn. Above the artist’s head is Madeleine, his stepdaughter, who stares out at her stepfather and, by extension, the viewer.
Dubbed Intimists, the Nabis drew their inspiration from Parisian life, including its domestic and private interiors. Vuillard asked, ‘Why is it always in the familiar places that the mind and the sensibility find the greatest degree of genuine novelty?’1 While, as a member of the diverse Nabis group, Vallotton embraced such subject matter, he held firm to his own precise visual style, rejecting his colleagues’ predilection for pattern and texture. His interior works are often devoid of the warmth of familiar associations common to other Nabis interiors. In many of Vallotton’s later portraits the interior becomes so significant that it is no longer a mere setting. Yet here, with the emphasis on the surroundings, it is easy to see how a group portrait could be mistaken for a genre scene.
Vallotton creates a mood of unspoken hostility through the use of silhouettes and striking shadows.The air of stillness enshrouds the typical Nabis subject—a family gathered round a table—with a sense of foreboding. Typically Vallotton’s domestic scenes contain harsh light and sharply focused detail, which he borrowed from classical Northern European genre painting.
Vallotton’s interiors have a motionless quality. Although the figure on the left is yawning, he seems frozen in the act.The rest of the family appears similarly lifeless. This melancholic stillness may express the artist’s attitude towards his new family. Set in the dining room of Vallotton’s house on Rue Beau-Séjour in Paris, it was painted just after his marriage to an art dealer’s daughter. Vallotton hoped that the alliance would advance his career, but he found that married life did not suit him as well as he had supposed. A reserved person, he found the constant interaction with his wife and two stepchildren time-consuming and exhausting.
This is the first of two versions which Vallotton created of this scene.2 Although this painting has slightly more muted tones, both versions have identical detail and a similar colour palette. They belong to a series of paintings conceived as modern renditions of the interiors of seventeenth-century Dutch master Pieter de Hooch.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
- Quoted in Belinda Thomson, Movements in modern art: Post-Impressionism London: Tate Gallery Publishing 1998, p. 51.
- The second version, painted in 1900, is in the Kirov Regional Art Museum, Gorki.