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Vuillard – Paris, muses and elegant modern living

— June 2012

Associated media

Edouard Vuillard, Marcelle Aron (Madame Tristan Bernard), 1914, glue-based distemper on canvas.  The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Gift of Alice C. Simkins in memory of Alice N. Hanszen, 95.222

Victoria Keller is impressed by ‘Edouard Vuillard. A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940’ in New York

The aim of New York’s Jewish Museum is to explore the intersection of art and Jewish culture from ancient to modern times.  There were few times more fruitful for this intersection than the cultural milieu of late 19th- and early 20th-century Paris.  Anyone who has read either Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past or is familiar with Edmund de Waal's popular The Hare With Amber Eyes, knows about the wealthy Jewish families, often with younger sons (who didn't have to go into the family businesses whence they derived their income) with time and money and a serious interest in the arts.  Parisian art and artists of this period would have been poorer, both literally and figuratively, without their patronage.

The French artist Edouard Vuillard (1868–1940), is the subject of the Jewish Museum's current exhibition, ‘Edouard Vuillard.  A Painter and His Muses, 1890–1940’(until 23 September) as well as of the well-produced publication that accompanies it.  He was a successful portrait painter and the exhibition focuses on his wealthy Parisian clientele, many of whom were Jewish. 

Vuillard's own background was humble enough.  His mother was a corsetmaker who ran a small dressmaking shop and his family moved to Paris when he was ten years old.  He went to school and later to the Académie Julian, with the artists Maurice Denis and Ker-Xavier Roussel, who later became his brother-in-law. While at the Académie with these two artists and with Pierre Bonnard, Paul Serusier and Felix Vallotton, he formed the group called the Nabis (meaning 'prophet' in Hebrew and Arabic). 

Initially the Nabis, whose work was stongly Symbolist, were influenced by Paul Gauguin’s expressive use of colour and rhythmic pattern, but they all moved on to their own styles quite swiftly.  Vuillard and Bonnard became the main practitioners of Intimisme, a type of painting featuring intimate domestic scenes, capturing fleeting moments, painted in a style akin to Impressionism but often with more exaggerated colour and distortions used to convey mood.

Vuillard's mother, to whom he was devoted and with whom he shared an apartment until she died in 1928, figured in a great many of his early portraits.  They are often quite small and densely painted. Sometimes it's hard to see the person painted because of the profusion of patterns and colours that seem to engulf the sitter, reminding you that Vuillard grew up amid fabrics.   Informal groupings of his friends and, later, his many commissioned portraits make up the bulk of his work, though he also painted landscapes and still lifes, produced theatrical posters and took many photos, which he used in his painting’s compositions.

In 1891, Alfred, Alexandre and Thadée Natanson, sons of a prosperous Polish-French Jewish banker, launched the magazine La Revue Blanche.  It covered art and politics and became one of the dominant cultural journals of the period.  In the same year, Thadée Natanson invited Vuillard to show some work in the journal's office; it was his first solo exhibition.  Vuillard became a lifelong friend of Thadée and for a time was a close member of the Natanson family circle, receiving commissions for portraits because of the connection, but also painting the family in its intimate, daily surrounding.  Thadée's wife Misia figures in many of these and was a confidante and muse to Vuillard for many years.

On one of the exhibitions’ explanatory wall panels (these are all extremely well written), is a comment attributed to the artist: ‘I don't paint portraits, I paint people in their surroundings’.  You could say that he painted people almost embedded in their personal spaces.  

While many Parisian artists benefited at this time from the patronage of Jewish art collectors, magazine writers and gallery owners, a number of them, as well as the general public, were swept along by the anti-Semitism already pretty widespread in Paris even before the Dreyfus Affair, but which convulsed France in 1894 and lasted for 12 years.  Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer on the French General Staff was accused of being a German spy on fabricated evidence, imprisoned, released, then reconvicted and released until he was officially exonerated in 1906.

Another Jewish connection, on which both the exhibition and the book focus, developed after Thadée and Misia separated.  In 1900 Vuillard joined the Bernheim-Jeune gallery, a prestigious venue for modern art and began to receive commissions from new patrons.  The gallery was managed by Jos Hessel and his cousins.  Hessel arranged the first Nabis exhibition in 1900, and remained Vuillard's principal dealer and close friend for the next 40 years.

Jos and his wife Lucy belonged to a wealthy, culturally sophisticated Jewish circle.  Lucy Hessel became Vuillard's confidante and supporter and eventually his lover, in a relationship that lasted until his death.  Along with his many commissioned portraits of Parisian ladies, often with their children, Vuillard painted Lucy, and her family and friends, pictures of elegant modern leisure with sumptuous interiors and lovely landscapes that ended just before the Germans invaded France.

The exhibition focuses on these two main relationships with Misia and Lucy, and the circles within which they moved, showing the development of Vuillard's painting, from the dense early compositions to his more naturalistic style of post 1900.  Throughout, Vuillard presents us not only with the psychological ambiance of the sitter's daily life as he embeds her in her surroundings, but through his use of colour and composition he expresses the immediacy of the sitter’s present experience.

Edouard Vuillard.  A Painter and His Muses, 1890–1940  by Stephen Brown, with an essay by Richard R. Brettellis published by the Jewish Museum, New York and Yale University Press, New Haven. 144pp., 109 colour and 7 mono illus, $45.00 (hardback). ISBN 978-0-300-17675-9. The catalogue contains an accessible introduction by Stephen Brown; Richard Brettell’s essay is more complex.


Victoria Keller
New York

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