This name "Nabis" -- taken from the Hebrew, and signifying prophets or illuminati -- was given them by Cazalis, the poet. Amongst the adherents to the newly formed group were Sérusier, Maurice Denis, Ranson, Vuillard, Roussel, Ibels, Bonnard, Piot, Verkade, Vallotton and Maillol. Maurice Denis organised group dinners at the Os à Moelle restaurant and though arguments ran fast and furious, high good humour reigned at these reunions. Another rallying centre was the Revue Blanche office. Thadée Natanson, its editor, has left an account of these gatherings, in which he was struck by Sérusier's "excitability," by Vallotton's sharp tongue, and Roussel's "bold flights of fancy." Bonnard, he noticed, "loved to contradict everyone else," while Vuillard displayed "a most acute intelligence."
Before developing their neo-Impressionist style, Bonnard, Vuillard and the other Nabis, together with other more or less aesthetic painters, were much influenced by the 'symbolist' work of Gauguin. It was in the last days of September 1888 that Sérusier had his decisive encounter with Gauguin at Pont-Aven, and upon his return could show his fellowpainters at the Académic Julian the famous 'talisman' painted in the Bois d'Amour in juxtaposed pure tones upon the lid of a cigar-box. The exhibition of the Impressionist and Synthesist Group ( Gauguin, Bernard, Laval) at the Café Volpini early in 1889 completed the revelation. Converted to the new gospel were Bonnard, Ibels, Ranson and Maurice Denis, who were soon joined by a number of fugitives from the École des Beaux-Arts: Vuillard, Roussel, Piot and, a little later, Verkade, Vallotton, the sculptors Lacombe and Maillol, and the latter's friend, the Hungarian painter Ripl Ronai.
The Nabis, so baptized by the poet Cazalis with a Hebrew term meaning 'prophets', met every month for dinner at l'Os à Moelle, in the Passage Brady in Paris, and every week in the studio of Ranson, who found a picturesque nickname for each of them: Bonnard, 'The Nipponizing Nabi'; Verkede, 'The Nabi Obelisk'; Vuillard, 'The Zouave'. They also assembled at the art dealer Pére Tanguy's, in the rue Clauzel, where they discovered Cézanne and Van Gogh; at their own art dealer Le Barc de Bouteville's, who devoted several exhibitions to them from 1891 to 1897; or at the Théâtre de l'Œuvre, founded by their friend Lugné-Poë, for whom they designed settings, and on the premises of the Revue Blanche, which was also frequented by Lautrec, whose friendship they made along with the acquaintance of all the celebrities of Symbolism in literature. To these numerous contacts and to the momentarily dominating influence of Gauguin were added that of Puvis de Chavannes, Odilon Redon, folk images and Japanese etchings and, to a lesser extent, of Gustave Moreau and the English Pre-Raphaelites. The Nabis' doctrine was summed up, according to Maurice Denis, in the Theory of the Two Distortions: 'The Objective Distortion, based upon a purely aesthetic and decorative concept, upon technical principles of colour and composition, and the Subjective Distortion, which brought into play the artist's own perception . . .' They applied these principles not only to easel painting, 'a plane surface covered with colours brought together in a certain order', but also to a series of decorative techniques whose spirit they revolutionized, such as painting on cardboard, tempera, stained glass, lithography, posters, theatre settings, and book illustration. The variety of their experiments and increasing exchanges between the worlds of art and entertainment characterize the end of the century, which bore the Nabi stamp in all fields (cf. the articles on Bonnard, Denis, Sérusier, Vallotton and Vuillard). Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis and Lugné-Poë, the latter three schoolmates at the Lycée Condorcet, shared a studio for a time in 1890, in the Place Pigalle. Then Denis, Sérusier and Verkade - the latter became a monk at the famous Benedictine monastery of Beuron in 1893 -- drew together in a certain neo-classical mysticism vaguely derived from Pont-Aven, while Bonnard and Vuillard, the sensitive Intimists, by far the most gifted of the group, unamenable to the theories of Sérusier, soon separated from Gauguin and formed with Roussel an actual group within the group. During this period Vallotton practised chiefly woodengraving in black-and-white. He made the doctrine and the art of his friends known in Switzerland, but after 1900 his tense, severe style developed into an extreme realism close to German expressionism. The Nabis exhibited together for the last time at the Durand-Ruel Gallery in 1899, in tribute to Odilon Redon, but by then each of them had already gone his own way. In 1908 Paul Ranson opened an Academy, which his premature death the following year prevented him from managing long, but which was maintained by his widow with the assistance of the former Nabis, especially Maurice Denis and Sérusier, both of whom were the authors of the group's doctrinal books, Denis of Theories and New Theories, and Sérusier of An ABC of Painting.