Félix Vallotton, who had been living in Paris since 1882, underwent a crisis in the late 1880s that saw him sink into depression. He faced both financial difficulties and a crippling crisis of artistic faith: the early portraits he had shown at the Salon des artistes français had earned him a fledgling reputation and he was one of the artists selected to represent Switzerland at the Exposition Universelle in 1889, but he was struggling to find his own voice after his studies at the Académie Julian.
In the summer of 1889, he went home to his family in Switzerland. On the way to Lausanne, he stopped at Les Charbonnières in the Jura. There, he tried his hand at landscape painting, a genre he had begun to take an interest in shortly before on a visit to Zermatt. It was later to become a major aspect of his oeuvre. The weather was rather miserable, as he wrote to his brother Paul: “5 a.m. Either it is raining constantly, or there is a terrible wind that means I can’t work outside at all”. He took advantage of a lull to paint four views of the hamlet of Les Petites-Charbonnières (now Le Pont), between the two lakes of Brenet and Joux. Two of the paintings are now lost. Vallotton laid out the landscape in simple terms, with swift dabs of the brush for the lake, shore, and path and a few small touches for the anglers in the foreground. He took particular care with the houses in the middle ground: the interesting angles of their grey and red roofs add a sense of life to the composition and he is at pains to render their reflections in the lake.
Though Vallotton held that the small canvases he painted at Les Charbonnières were “merely of private interest”, they gesture to a developing sense of acidic colour, a gift for synthesis and a tendency to flatten perspective that all characterise his later work.
Marina Ducrey, in collaboration with Katia Poletti, Félix Vallotton, 1865-1925 : l’œuvre peint, 3 vol., Lausanne, Fondation Félix Vallotton, Zurich, Institut suisse pour l’étude de l’art, Milan, 5 Continents Editions, 2005, n° 87.
Sasha M. Newman (dir.), Félix Vallotton, exh. cat. Lausanne, Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Paris, Flammarion, 1992.