How Famed French Artists Came To Identify Themselves With a Hebrew Name

Paul Gauguin and His Compatriots Dubbed Themselves 'Nabis'

Past Impressions: Pierre Bonnard is one of the ‘Nabis,’ whose work is on display at the Hermitage Amsterdam museum.
Getty Images
Past Impressions: Pierre Bonnard is one of the ‘Nabis,’ whose work is on display at the Hermitage Amsterdam museum.

By Philologos

Published October 20, 2013, issue of October 25, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share

A major art exhibition that opened in September at the Hermitage Amsterdam museum features works by three post-Impressionist French painters: Paul Gauguin, Pierre Bonnard and Maurice Denis — the first two better known to the general public than the third. They were, according to the museum’s press release, “briefly united with a few other artists… under the name of Les Nabis, after the Hebrew word for ‘prophet.’ These young artists explored fascinating artistic paths. Unlike the Impressionists, who aimed primarily to capture the fleeting qualities of natural light, the Nabis emphasized color, feeling, symbolism and imagination.” The Nabis — who also included such painters as Paul Sérusier, Paul Ranson, Puvis de Chavannes, Edouard Vuillard and others — loosely adhered as a group through the last decade of the 19th century, after which they went their separate ways.

I’ve often wondered about the origins of the term “Les Nabis,” which has been explained in different ways. It’s been said, for instance, that it came from one or more Jews in the group — yet not only, as far as I can tell, were there no Jewish painters among the Nabis’ prominent members, but any Jew with a knowledge of Hebrew would have said “navi,” as the word for “prophet” is pronounced by Jews, not “nabi.” The spelling “nabi” is found only in modern biblical criticism, an almost entirely Christian pursuit until well into the 20th century. The reason for this is that the Hebrew character bet, with which the word navi is spelled, can be pronounced either “b” or “v,” the choice being determined by rabbinic tradition and certain grammatical rules. Christian scholars, not accepting of this tradition and uncertain of whether these rules already applied in biblical times, preferred to stick in their transcription of biblical Hebrew with bet’s primary value of “b.”

Elsewhere, you’ll find “Nabis” attributed to the French poet Henri Cazalis who according to Oxford University Press’s “Grove Art Outline” was a “Hebrew scholar” — which, however, I’ve been unable to find any evidence of his being. Art historian Jane Mayo Roos, on the other hand, quotes Maurice Denis (a fervent Catholic who ended up joining the anti-Semitic right-wing political movement Action Française) as crediting Paul Sérusier with the term. “He [Sérusier],” she quotes Denis as saying, “gave us a name that, in respect to the studios, made us initiates, a sort of secret society with mystical tendencies, habitually in a state of prophetic fervor….”

This could, of course, be so, but it leaves one wondering where Sérusier, who also was no Hebraist or biblical scholar, came across the word. The probable answer, I think, lies with a figure who was neither a painter nor associated with the Nabis but was a Hebraist and scholar: the renowned French biblical critic, Semiticist and historian Ernest Renan (1823–1892). Renan was a major figure in the French intellectual life of the second half of the 19th century, his most popular work being his Vie de Jésus” or “Life of Jesus,” published in 1863. In this book, writing about Jesus’ Jewish background, he drew a sharp distinction between the biblical institutions of priesthood and prophecy, writing:

“The Hebrew priest did not differ much from the other priests of antiquity. The character which essentially distinguishes Israel among theocratic peoples is that its priesthood has always been subordinated to individual inspiration. Besides its priests, each wandering tribe had its nabi or prophet, a sort of living oracle who was consulted for the solution of obscure questions supposed to require a high degree of clairvoyance. The nabis of Israel, organized in groups or schools, had great influence. Defenders of the ancient democratic spirit, enemies of the rich, opposed to all political organization, and to whatsoever might draw Israel into the paths of other nations, they were the true authors of the religious pre-eminence of the Jewish people.”

“The Life of Jesus,” one of the first works by a Christian biblical scholar to stress Jesus’ Jewish roots, was a best-seller in France and went through many editions. Cazalis may very well have read it; so might Sérusier; so might other post-Impressionists, such as Gauguin — a political radical who, with anarchist sympathies in his younger years, would have particularly liked Renan’s description of the Israelite nabi. Any one of the group’s members might have mentioned it to one or more of the others, and the word could easily have caught on, whether initially spread by Cazalis, Denis or someone else.

As a Jew, unfortunately, one can’t take any great pleasure in this. Despite his positive appraisal of the biblical prophets, Renan was not an admirer of Judaism, and “The Life of Jesus” ultimately argues that Jesus became what he did by casting off its influence. An espouser of racialist, though not vulgarly racial, theories, Renan came to hold that the Semitic mind was a limited and confined one, and that there was a “racial hierarchy of peoples,” at the apex of which stood the nations of Europe. Probably none of the Nabis knew or cared enough about either biblical religion or Judaism to agree or disagree with him. They just liked the word and what they thought it stood for.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • Backstreet's...not back.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.