Room 5: Symbolism / The Nabis

The paintings in this room span four decades and fall into two related groups. The Symbolists—such as Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, Gustave Moreau and Odilon Redon—explored mythology, philosophy and dreams. Puvis’ The poor fisherman was much admired when shown in 1881. Its large size elevates the plight of the poor to the scale of fresco painting. Redon’s dreaming figures and strange hybrid creatures capture a sense of other-worldliness.

The second group, led by Paul Sérusier, were a collection of disaffected art students—including Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis and Edouard Vuillard—who called themselves the Nabis (the name is based on the Hebrew and Arabic words for ‘prophet’). As well as artistic interests, the Nabis were drawn together by idealist philosophies and Symbolist literature.

Some works, such as Sérusier’s The talisman, adopt Paul Gauguin’s style in the use of unmodulated colour and simplification of forms. Other works share the sombre colours and reduced palette of Puvis’ paintings, but are more intimate in scale. Jewel-like domestic interiors and portraits capture vignettes of everyday life and celebrate ties of friendship and family between the artists.