He was born into a conservative middle-class family in Lausanne, and there he attended College Cantonal, graduating with a degree in classical studies in 1882. In that year he moved to Paris to study art under Jules Joseph Lefebvre and Gustave Boulanger at the Academie Julian. He spent many hours in the Louvre, where he greatly admired the works of Holbein, Durer and Ingres; these artists would remain exemplars for Vallotton throughout his life. Vallottons earliest paintings, chiefly portraits, are firmly rooted in the academic tradition. In 1885 he painted the Ingresque Portrait of Monsieur Ursenbach as well as his first painted self-portrait (seen at left), which received an honorable mention at the Salon des artistes francais in 1886.
During the following decade Vallotton painted, wrote art criticism and made a number of prints. In 1891 he executed his first woodcut, a portrait of Paul Verlaine. The many woodcuts he produced during the 1890s were recognized as innovative, and established Vallotton as a leader in the revival of true woodcut as an artistic medium.In the western world, the relief print, in the form of commercial wood engraving, had long been utilized mainly as a means to accurately reproduce drawn or painted images and, latterly, photographs. Vallottons woodcut style was novel in its starkly reductive opposition of large masses of undifferentiated black and areas of unmodulated white.