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Paul Sérusier was born in 1864 in Paris into a well-to-do middle-class family. His father was a successful businessman in the perfume industry, who gave his son a good education. In 1875 Paul entered the Condorcet Lycée, where he studied classical philosophy, Greek and Latin, and the sciences. He graduated from the Lycée in 1883 with two baccaulaureats – in philosophy and in the sciences.
In 1885, after a short period of work in the company of his father's friend, Paul entered the Julian Academy to study art. Having a lovely disposition he soon became very popular both with students and professors. His lifelong friendship with Maurice Denis started there.
In 1888, Sérusier arrived at Pont-Aven in Brittany, a town popular among French and foreign artists. There Sérusier's attention was attracted by a group of artists who crowded around Emile Bernand and Paul Gauguin. Sérusier got their acquaintance and even received a lesson from Gauguin. Gauguin encouraged the young painter to release himself from the constraints of imitative painting, to use pure colors, not to hesitate to exaggerate his impressions, and to give to the painting his own, decorative logic and symbolic system.
Sérusier returned to Paris with a small painting, drawn under Gauguin's guidance, and showed it enthusiastically to his friends, sharing the new ideas that he learned from Gauguin. They called the painting The Talisman. Sérusier began active propaganda, which according to Maurice Denis caused passionate debates among the students. Together with the friends who shared the new ideas, Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Maurice Denis (1870-1943), Henri Ibels (1867-1936) and Paul Ranson (1862-1909), Sérusier formed a group, which they called Nabis (Hebrew "prophets"). They met regularly to discuss theoretical problems of art, symbolism, occult sciences and esotericism. Later, Armand Seguin, Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940) and Kerr-Xavier Roussel (1867-1944) joined the group. However, after Gauguin's departure to Tahiti, in 1891, the group gradually fell apart and its members developed separately in different directions.
In the summer of 1892 Sérusier returned to Brittany, to the small village Huelgoat. Huelgoat became the place of his work for the next two years. His subjects were Breton peasants, their figures monumental and solid. The painter's palette too had changed, he no longer used pure colors, but toned them down with gray.
Sérusier spent his winters in Paris, working with his friend Lugné-Poe, founder of Théâtre de l'Oeuvre. Many of the Nabis artists participated in the scene decoration and costume design of the Symbolist plays of the theater, Sérusier among them. The theater made it possible for them to try out on a large scale their principles of simplification and the synthesis of the various means of expression.
In 1895, Sérusier accepted an invitation of his friend Jan Verkade, to come to the Benedictine monastery of Beuron in Germany. The monk-artists of the monastery practiced the aesthetic principles, according to which the laws of beauty were divine ones; they were mysteriously hidden in nature and could be revealed only to the artists who were able to perceive the proportions and the harmony of the sizes: "God did everything in the Holy Spirit according to measurement, a number and weight". The new doctrines appealed to Sérusier, and on his return to Paris he tried to convince his Nabi friends in their novelty and importance. The ideas met no enthusiasm in Paris and Sérusier distanced himself from his former friends. After several successive voyages to Beuron, he settled in Brittany and cultivated painting primarily based on calculations and measurements. He applied Beuton ideas to his Breton subjects. Then he studied Egyptian art, the Italian primitivists, and the tapestries of the Middle Ages to create decorative works of a mysterious and calculated timelessness.
From 1908, he started to teach regularly at the Ranson Academy. In 1921 Sérusier published "ABC of Painting", a short treatise in which he developed a theory of the curves and simple shapes, and a theory of color and a method of research of the deafened colors. The book represented the summary of Sérusier's aesthetic research.
The painter died in 1927 in Morlaix.
Gauguin and the Nabis: Prophets of Modernism by Arthur Ellridge. Terrail, 1995.
The Nabis: Bonnard, Vuillard and Their Circle by Claire Freches-Thory (Author), Antoine Terrasse (Author). Flammarion, 2003.
The Nabis and the Parisian Avant-Garde by Patricia Eckert Boyer (Editor), Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Elizabeth Prelinger. Rutgers University Press, 1988.
The Nabis and Their Period by Charles Chassé. Lund Humphries, 1969.