Edouard Vuillard. Flowers on a Mantlepiece in Clayes/Fleurs sur une cheminee aux Clayes. c. 1932-35. Detrempe sur papier maroufle sur toile 102 x 90 cm. Private collection.
Les Nabis originated as a rebellious group of young student artists who banded together at the Académie Julian. Paul Sérusier galvanized Les Nabis, and provided the name and disseminated the example of Paul Gauguin among them. Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard and Maurice Denis became the best known of the group; at the time, however, they were somewhat peripheral to the core group.
The term was coined by the poet Henri Cazalis who drew a parallel between the way these painters aimed to revitalize painting (as prophets of modern art) and the way the ancient prophets had rejuvenated Israel. Possibly the nickname arose because “most of them wore beards, some were Jews and all were desperately earnest”.
Les Nabis regarded themselves as initiates, and used a private vocabulary. They called a studio ergasterium, and ended their letters with the initials E.T.P.M.V. et M.P., meaning “En ta paume, mon verbe et ma pensée” (“In the palm of your hand, my word and my thoughts.”)
*Nabi means prophet in Hebrew and in Arabic.