Montreal Museum of Fine Arts/National Gallery of Art/Yale University Press, 501 pp., $65.00
Vuillard’s place as one of the genuinely lovable painters of the past century or more is vigorously tested by his current retrospective, the most comprehensive he has ever been given. The pretext for this large exhibition is, it appears, the imminent publication of the Vuillard catalogue raisonné, a project which has been underway for some fifty years, and is largely the work of Guy Cogeval, the director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, who happens to have organized the current show and is the principal author of its catalog. The National Gallery exhibition brings together, along with Vuillard’s small Parisian interiors and portraits of friends of the 1890s, his best-known work, an unusually large number of the generally bigger pictures dating from 1900 on—the artist died in 1940, at seventy-one—along with a greater number of the suites of decorative panels that he did throughout his career and that are rarely seen in force.
The point of the show and of its catalog, which approaches telephone- directory size, is that everything Édouard Vuillard did is of considerable importance, which is not the way he has been generally viewed for generations. The exhibition presents an opportunity for a reconsideration, and in the essays in its catalog we’re given new ways to think about Vuillard’s art and his person, which are welcome events. Vuillard was already a world-class genius when he was a young artist, and the urge to rethink the rest of his work is understandable. But Cogeval’s show, which is hobbled by an awkward layout at the National Gallery, with some rooms feeling as if they could use more pictures and other rooms too densely packed with works, doesn’t do the trick.
Even Vuillard’s really solid work could look better than it does in Washington. To begin with, far more of it would be welcome. The scrumptious small pictures Vuillard did between 1890 and 1900, many of which are some eight or ten inches on a side, represent one of the more dazzling streaks in modern art history. Vuillard came to public recognition along with a group of young painters, the best known nowadays being Pierre Bonnard and Félix Vallotton—the three were also personally close—who called themselves Nabis, Hebrew for “prophets.” Because of the march of art-historical development, there’s a tendency to think of the Nabis as appearing after the dust had settled on the Impressionists and the Postimpressionists—chiefly van Gogh, Gauguin, and Seurat—and before the next new movement, the Fauvism of Matisse, Derain, and Dufy. But when Vuillard’s work took off, in 1890—he was twenty-two—Degas, Cézanne, and Monet still had years of significant painting before them, Gauguin was only in the early stages of his mature work, Seurat would be around for another year (before dying unexpectedly at age thirty-one), and van Gogh died that year, his pictures barely known, at thirty-seven. Vuillard arrived at a moment of unbelievable change, and his …