“The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most.” - John Ruskin
Paul Ranson was a French painter and designer (born Limoges, 1864; died Paris, 20 Feb 1909). He was the son of a successful local politician and was encouraged from the outset in his artistic ambitions. He studied at the Écoles des Arts Décoratifs in Limoges and Paris but transferred in 1886 to the Académie Julian. There he met Paul Sérusier and in 1888 became one of the original members of the group known as the “Nabis”.
The Nabis, was a group of artists who, through their widely diverse activities, exerted a major influence on the art produced in France during the late 19th century. They maintained that a work of art reflects an artist’s synthesis of nature into personal aesthetic metaphors and symbols.
The Nabis were greatly influenced by Japanese woodcuts, French Symbolist painting, and English Pre-Raphaelite art. Their primary inspiration, however, stemmed from the Pont-Aven school, which centred on the Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin. Under Gauguin’s direct guidance, Paul Sérusier, the group’s founder, painted the first Nabi work, “Landscape at the Bois d’Amour at Pont-Aven” (1888; also called “The Talisman”), a small, near-abstract landscape composed of patches of simplified, non-naturalistic colour.
From 1890 onwards, Ranson and his wife France hosted Saturday afternoon meetings of the Nabis in their apartment in the Boulevard du Montparnasse, jokingly referred to as ‘Le Temple’. Ranson acted as linchpin for the sometimes dispersed group. Noted for his enthusiasm and wit and for his keen interests in philosophy, theosophy and theatre, he brought an element of esoteric ritual to their activities. For example he introduced the secret Nabi language and the nicknames used familiarly within the group. He also constructed a puppet theatre in his studio for which he wrote plays that were performed by the Nabis before a discerning public of writers and politicians.
Ranson’s work showed a consistent commitment to the decorative arts: Like Maillol he made designs for tapestry, some of which were executed by his wife. His linear, sinuous style, seen in works such as “Woman Standing beside a Balustrade with a Poodle”, had strong affinities with Japanese prints and with contemporary developments in Art Nouveau design; it was a style suited to a variety of media, stained glass, lithography, ceramics or tapestry.
Ranson tended to favour exotic, symbolic or quasi-religious motifs rather than subjects observed from nature. In his Nabi Landscape of 1890, for example, he sets a variety of obscure feminine symbols within a fantasy landscape. After his early death in 1909 his wife continued to run the Académie Ranson, which they had opened in 1908 to disseminate Nabi aesthetic ideas and techniques to a younger generation. Teaching was undertaken on a voluntary basis by other Nabis, especially Denis and Sérusier.
The work above is “A Clearing at the Edge of the Forest” (1895). The strong decorative elements of the work show a kinship to the sinuous forms of Art Nouveau and its colours are similar to Gauguin’s palette, and contain the seeds of Fauvism. The painting also shows a relationship to Japanese prints with the gradations of colour in sky and background behind the yellow trees that show an almost abstract silhouette, against which the trees of the foreground are placed. It is a highly satisfying work and possesses an other-worldly beauty that invites the spectator into it.