An avant-garde still life

The Visit dates from the same period as Félix Jasinski Holding his Hat, but according to the artist’s livre de raison it was painted first. What both works (the portrait and the description of Jasinski’s interior) have in common is their emphasis on the top hat, which features like an attribute in the engraver’s hands in the portrait, and is placed on a chair in The Visit.

In his livre de raison, Félix Valloton recorded the latter painting asStill Life, a perfectly legitimate title: the work is certainly a still life, albeit a rather unusual one as cane and hat rarely featured among the subjects depicted in this pictorial genre. However they perfectly symbolised the contemporary life of the period, reflecting late 19th-century Parisian manners. And the top hat was of particular relevance to Félix Jasinski - he holds one in his hands in the portrait painted shortly afterwards by his Swiss friend. With his portrayal of such accessories, Félix Vallotton emerged as the kind of painter praised by Baudelaire in his essay "The Painter of Modern Life". This role had initially been allotted to the Impressionists who portrayed scenes of Parisian nightlife, dance halls etc. Vallotton went beyond Renoir’s theatre scenes and Degas’s cafés-concerts insofar as he made skilful use of the art of suggestion and distance even before working on his simplified woodcuts. He takes a metonymic approach In these paintings: the top hat left on the chair is none other than the metonymic portrait of Félix Jasinski. These simple objects exceed their owner, however, also representing the accessories required by a certain lifestyle. This work thus recreates an intimist atmosphere and efficiently represents contemporary lifestyle, and was painted with a real economy of means and dryness of style from which the artist rarely departed thereafter; it therefore heralds, somewhat prematurely, the best of Vallotton’s work.

This use of detail to convey essence was taken up three years later by one of Vallotton’s close friends, Edouard Vuillard; in his Bois de Boulogne (private collection), painted in 1890, the silhouette of a top hat in the bottom left corner of the painting suggests the presence of a male observer. The top hat, finely described by Stéphane Mallarmé as a "dark, sombre, supernatural meteor", had already featured in Degas’s work, in an etched portrait of Manet (Manet, seated, turned to the right 1864-65, private collection). And in 1896, Matisse also paid homage to it with his Interior with Top Hat (private collection).
Jean-Pierre Mélot