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 small pictures of the Nineties, especially the works of the first years of the decade, show him taking from everybody and fashioning his own identity out of the many possibilities with an adventurousness and speed that remain startling and pleasurable to contemplate.
In the years after 1900, Vuillard failed to keep up with the achievements of either Bonnard or Vallotton, but of the three he was the strongest and most assured in the Nineties. He absorbed Seurat’s system of dots, making his own splotchier, and he took Gauguin’s idea about how strong colors need to be placed flatly, one next to the other, and gave his own pictures a glow and a resonance that Gauguin’s lack. Vuillard mixed into his brew the stark drawing of the new posters (Toulouse-Lautrec was a friend and a subject), the flowing outlines of Japanese prints, and the flatness of early Renaissance tapestries—even of medieval stained glass, then also being newly appreciated. Flatness was the exciting issue of the day for a young Paris painter, and one of the liveliest aspects of Vuillard’s art of the time is how he turned a taste for flatness into so many jokes about decipherability, into images where it’s not clear that we’re looking at a face, or that a blobby shape in the background is a seated person.
From the start Vuillard also had a sure handle on his subject. Although he made successful pictures of people in the street or theaters, his chosen realm was home life in all its dailiness. He lived with his mother and sister in various apartments that also functioned as Mme. Vuillard’s corset-making establishment, and some of her son’s finest paintings are about the hum of women at work with their materials, friends and family at dinner or lunch, chats over coffee, visits to the kitchen in the dead of night, even, in some especially beautiful works, a person in bed, asleep.
What Vuillard’s interiors are about is a matter that is still under debate. For most viewers, these little paintings are so much fun to look at, their surfaces are so varied and lush, the figures and faces in them have such a poster- and tapestry-like goofiness, and there is such a joyous mixture in this art of dazzling circus colors here and unexpectedly emphatic passages in black and white there, as to make us feel that the only appropriate response is “I want one.” Probably no writer better expressed the happiness that Vuillard can elicit than John Russell when, in his essay for the catalog of a Vuillard retrospective he organized in 1971, he wrote that a “sense of celestial security comes over us” as the painter “re-creates the world, touch by touch, in such a way that everything in it harmonizes with every other thing. What in other hands would be a jangle of discordant patterns comes out as a paradise on earth.”
In The Intimate Interiors of Edouard Vuillard, though, an excellent 1989 exhibition of the artist’s early work, Elizabeth Wynne Easton, who arranged the show and wrote its accompanying catalog, saw Vuillard’s interiors as portrayals of “psychological tension.” Especially in the pictures of his mother and sister, which are among his most representative images, and in which a bulky Mme. Vuillard shares a tight space with a young woman of such gangliness as to resemble a puppet on strings, Easton deciphered “ambiguous and often troubled relations.” Easton’s sense of an anxious universe has now been amplified yet also nudged to the side by Guy Cogeval, in the present catalog, who also sees these works as “disturbing,” but implies that the tension is somewhat concocted, and attributable to Vuillard’s concurrent work in the theater.
Vuillard’s activities as a set painter and designer of playbills, principally for his friend the actor-director Lugné-Poe, whose Théâtre de l’Oeuvre gave Paris in those years its first look at Ibsen, Strindberg, Maeterlinck, and other trailblazers of the moment, have long been known and considered a factor in his painting. But Cogeval gives a new sense of the depth of Vuillard’s involvement in all kinds of stagecraft, and makes plausible the idea that the artist recast his own family life in light of the Symbolist plays and the Scandinavian dramas about domestic agitation that he was immersed in for Lugné-Poe. I don’t think that either Easton or Cogeval dispels Russell’s sense that we are looking at a “paradise on earth.” Yet thinking of Vuillard’s interiors, which sometimes do show people at an impasse, as the work of a do-it-yourself Ibsen undeniably enriches them.
Cogeval’s conception of Vuillard the person also shakes up long-held ideas. A lifelong bachelor who lived with his mother, the painter is invariably described as shy and retiring, and certainly not an artist for whom the nude and sexuality in itself were vital themes (which they were for Bonnard and Vallotton). The Vuillard Cogeval presents, however, is a would-be stage director and fairly imperious fellow who, arranging what turned out to be a genuinely difficult marriage between his sister and a good friend, in part for the sake of new kinds of family pictures, was capable of “remarkable thoughtlessness” in his dealings with people. Cogeval’s Vuillard is not exactly a flesh-and-blood creation; Cogeval brags of his Vuillard’s swinging cosmopolitanism more than he convincingly relates this worldly Vuillard to his work. Given the industry that underlies the painter’s copious output, though, Cogeval’s executive Vuillard makes more sense than the saintly and mousy person we usually encounter.
It’s startling to learn, nonetheless, that the painter eventually became a successful, even “compulsive,” womanizer. A portrait of a beamingly attractive Lucie Belin—one of a frustratingly large number of works that are part of the catalog but did not make it to Washington—turns out, for example, to be the fruit of a passionate affair, replete with letters on both sides and photographs of the young woman by Vuillard, conducted all the while he was officially linked with someone else. Nor was Lucie Belin an isolated case.
Women were actually crucial in determining the course of Vuillard’s work. His chief women, it is generally thought, were his mother, whom he called his muse and with whom he lived until she died, in 1928, when he was sixty; Misia Natanson, who, in the latter half of the Nineties, when she was married to Thadée Natanson, seems to have been the first great crush of Vuillard’s life; and finally Lucy Hessel, the wife of an art dealer named Jos Hessel, who became the painter’s mistress around 1900 and remained in that capacity until he died four decades later. Misia and Lucy, it could be said, represented the two Vuillards, the experimental painter of the Nineties, who found new ways to make a picture seemingly throughout the decade, and the more settled and gradually less and less adventurous artist of the last forty years of his life.
Thadée Natanson and his brother Alexandre were the founders of La Revue blanche, by all reckonings the best of the small literary magazines of the Nineties, and the milieu that Thadée and Misia created, in their Paris apartment and in two successive homes outside the city, proved stimulating and fruitful for both established and then only emerging writers, composers, and painters for years. Subsequently married to two more men of means, Misia, herself a fine pianist—she had studied with Fauré—would play something of the same magnetic role for figures such as Diaghilev, Cocteau, and the composers linked as Les Six as, in the Nineties, she had played for Mallarmé, Debussy, and the Nabi painters. For Vuillard, Bonnard, Lautrec, Vallotton, and others, the childless Misia and Thadée, along with the greater Natanson family, provided, beside a steady stream of commissions, a continual round of outings, travels, and stays in country houses that could last months. Misia was the sharp-tongued and flirtatious center of this ongoing party, and it’s likely that her appeal touched many in the Revue blanche circle; but, as she remembered the period in a memoir published in 1952, and as her life was recounted by Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale in their 1980 Misia,* it was Vuillard’s adoring regard for her that she felt most deeply.
On the surface, the painter’s life remained the same all through his days. Even as Lucy Hessel’s lover, a position that seems not to have been a secret to anybody, he was always a friend of the family, a role that Jos Hessel, for his own reasons, was willing to let Vuillard play. At one point, when the painter was staying with the Hessels at a summer house, he and Jos would take the train to Paris together in the morning and return to the country together in the evening. Vuillard made regular trips with Lucy and Jos, and he would have his own room in this or that house they rented or owned. Their circle was not devoid of artists and writers, either. Yet, as John Russell and others have noted, the Hessels’ sphere was worldly, not bohemian, and Vuillard was far likelier, in the long years he was with Lucy, to run into wealthy patrons of the arts, or manufacturers or investors who had little or nothing to do with the arts, than a young and unknown, let alone brashly new, talent.
Though his personal manner didn’t change, and he remained to the end an inveterate reader, journal keeper, theatergoer, sketcher in the Louvre, and stroller in and observer of Paris, Vuillard was increasingly a part of France’s establishment, and his art became largely a record of the faces, homes, and offices of, to use Ibsen’s title, the pillars of society, among them the couturier Jeanne Lavin, her daughter, the patroness Countess Marie-Blanche de Polignac, the Kapferer brothers, who had made their fortunes in aviation and oil, various esteemed Paris physicians, automobile executives, society wives, and prominent people of the theater, such as Sacha Guitry and Yvette Printemps.
There was another important woman in Vuillard’s life, though, and in thinking about her I believe we get closest to what Vuillard’s early pictures are truly about. This is Marie, the painter’s sister, who was seven years older than Édouard and like him lived at home, at least until she married. Marie, whose nickname was Mimi, wasn’t a muse, like the other main women in Vuillard’s life, and model may not be the best word to describe her presence in her brother’s work, because we don’t so much see her features as look at her silhouette, or catch her scurrying in one direction or another, her face indistinctly visible. (She isn’t more than a name in the writing about the artist, either. She is barely spoken of for herself.) She was really Vuillard’s most meaningful and memorable protagonist. Putting her in a picture, he tapped his feeling for physical comedy, for the body in motion, for a mixture of slapstick and affection that is his alone and is one of the most memorable notes he sounds.
It is Marie whom, in the Museum of Modern Art’s well-known Interior, Mother and Sister of the Artist, we see bowing, turning her body into a ninety-degree angle, edging along the wall, or, in The Mumps, running through the house, her face wrapped in cloth. It is Marie who, in different table scenes, twists her torso, neck, and head, each seemingly in a different direction simultaneously. In the wonderful An Outspoken Dinner Party, which isn’t in the show, she brings the table to life with stretchings and twistings worthy of burlesque, while in The Blue Sleeve, where Marie turns to look at the viewer, she is seen in such a way, with a pattern of light and shadow recasting her features, as to be a haggard yet still regal villainess (rather like Lady Macbeth taking a coffee break at the kitchen table). In certain scenes with her mother, old Mme. Vuillard can personify a stern immovability, but it’s Marie’s response that counts. In The Conversation, facing her mother, she holds a chair before her, almost as a shield, as commentators have noted, and her face is a beautifully simplified mask of innocent abashment.
Marie’s face isn’t ever much more than a mask, but presenting psychologically convincing people was hardly part of Vuillard’s program in the early Nineties. On the contrary, what he was handling at the time was the freedom to bring into painting an array of radically unnaturalistic approaches. What Vuillard, Vallotton, and Bonnard, and their friend Lautrec, and Edvard Munch, too, then based in Paris and pursuing ends that were remarkably similar to those of these artists, were adding to poetical, personal easel painting was what now might be called cartooning or animation. Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Seurat had begun a proc- ess where faces in paintings had a new hacked-out or curvy or posterish directness, and Vuillard and his peers, who were slightly influenced by the older painters, but also working very much on their own, nudged that process in new directions. They proceeded to make bodies that were squirmy, boneless wonders and faces where eyes might be no more than little black dots. Munch’s terror-bound and quaking Norwegian citizens caught on a bridge to nowhere, Vallotton’s darkened interiors populated with lovers, musicians, or dissociated couples, and Vuillard’s dot-eyed ninnies scrunching about in Paris apartments are all members of the same new family, and forebears of a century or more of experimentation—it is still underway—in how much rough-edged simplicity representational painting can take.
And it was Marie Vuillard who, it appears, helped her brother to let loose his inner ninny. Even before he began concentrating on his signature interior scenes, Marie, or youngish women who strongly resembled the generally plain-faced and long-limbed, elastic figure in later paintings who we know was Marie, is often Vuillard’s protagonist. In The Kiss, of circa 1891, which appears to be Vuillard’s sole image of such intimacy, we see the red-haired artist himself, looking out at the viewer, as he embraces and kisses a woman, her face drawn to his bearded mouth. The painting has long been thought to be of the artist and his sister, but Cogeval, in the present catalog, is certain that the woman is too short to be Marie and that, moreover, she was long mistakenly described as Marie because of “a certain prudishness found not infrequently in North American scholarship” which believed it “impossible to imagine Vuillard kissing anyone other than his sister.” Psychologically, though, those prudish North Americans were on the right track, because this odd painting, where the stiff, wary man getting his kiss might as easily be filling the gas tank of his car as making love, perfectly describes the nature of Édouard’s relationship with Marie. He fed off her. He may have felt that on some level they were interchangeable.
I don’t want to suggest that Vuillard’s pictures could only succeed if Marie was in them. By “Marie” I partly mean anyone with whom Vuillard felt a freedom to exaggerate bodily gestures, or to suggest a deformity that was also graceful and comic. A witty and adorable painting of his good friend Lugné-Poe, where the man is crunched up by the side of a table, busily writing, or of Lautrec at the theater (which isn’t in the show), or of the singer Yvette Guilbert, seen performing in the trickily designed and richly colored At the Divan Japonais, are all in part about Vuillard’s special mixture of physical gracefulness and ungainliness, and they are as much treasures of his art as those of Marie.
The paintings that Vuillard went on to make of Misia and the Natanson circle are treasures of a sort, too, but next to the works that preceded them, they’re becalmed. Those of Misia, often with Thadée disappearing into the background, reflect a deep change in Vuillard’s life. By the mid-Nineties he was moving out of his home orbit, where he had been a nervy young artist performing his experiments with the help of an adoring and compliant mother and a sister who was clearly a soul mate. Marie was married in 1893, and while she remained a subject for her brother on and off for the rest of the decade, she was no longer his partner. He was now fully a member of a brilliant literary, musical, artistic, and social circle, and he was clearly mesmerized by the young Mme. Natanson, twenty-three to his twenty-seven, in 1895.
In this new milieu, Vuillard became a different artist, too, and, it’s possible to believe, an equally strong one. In his painting from the second half of the Nineties, women in their patterned dresses are interchangeable with the wallpaper. With their long hair piled up in buns they flickeringly appear along with bunches of flowers and piles of books in ultra-cozy settings, warmly illuminated by oil lamps. Dreamy and luxurious, these works easily hold their own with the different floating worlds of Redon, whom the Nabis admired, and of Klimt and Chagall, who followed Vuillard.
Yet the pictures that revolve around Misia, which come to a head in a decorative scheme of five works called The Album, paintings that the Natansons took with them when they moved back and forth from their Paris apartment to their homes in the country, signal a certain loss for Vuillard. While in some of them Misia’s face has a bit of a saving mask-like power, Vuillard’s urge, in most of the works that include her, was to be more and more descriptive; and whether we’re looking at Misia or not, the female figures in his art became vapidly pretty. The irony of these paintings (for us as viewers) is that we know that Vuillard was growing up; the new realism he created to do justice to his feeling for Misia can be taken as a sign of his emotional growth. Yet his development as a person cost him his gusto and daring as an artist.
Vuillard didn’t, of course, become a silky romantic overnight. In The Widow’s Visit, of 1898, for example, he is back on home terrain, making a comic masterpiece that’s a visual equivalent of a scene in Jane Austen or E.M. Forster. In the picture, Marie and Mme. Vuillard have been joined by a biddy, and as MaryAnne Stevens, in the catalog, neatly puts it, “Madame Vuillard’s air of resignation, suggesting tolerance of too lengthy a disquisition, and Marie’s pointedly engaged pose suggest that their visitor, sporting an exaggerated widow’s bonnet, has outstayed her welcome.” The 1896 Interior, in turn, which shows an uninhabited room, quite dark but for a play of light and reflection, surely could not be bettered as an image of a mysteriously entrancing chamber.
Gorgeous as these paintings are, though, they show that, no matter what his subject, or how masterly his use of dots, fuzzy zones, and indirect lighting, Vuillard’s sense of space, of how to construct a picture, was increasingly conventional and realistic. He was losing his taste for playing flat, unnaturalistic passages off representational ones. Gone too were his inventive and daring introduction of black silhouettes against white or ivory and his feeling for chunks of bright red and yellow, orange and blue.
Vuillard became driven to make a kind of meshed, nondramatic, frankly decorative world, where no item, whether figures, wallpaper, light, sky, pavement, clothes, or anything else had more prominence than any other element—on the face of it, a lively ambition. The idea of giving oneself over to decorative projects was exciting for young painters in the Nineties, at least among the Nabis. To make vast works that, instead of pinpointing a viewer’s attention, as easel pictures presumably did, surrounded the viewer, as a kind of music, was to alter the scope of the art form. The desire to make decorations was part of a larger progressive endeavor that, as it gathered steam over the years, touched, among others, Monet, in his opulent pictures of lily ponds, Mark Rothko, who saw suites of enveloping panels in religious terms, and Dan Flavin, whose rooms and corridors bathed in fluorescent light are heirs of the Nabi desire to have painting join forces with architecture. Vuillard pitched into the idea of decoration with a professional willingness matched by few other painters of the modern era. And it’s likely that, in their original settings, these large projects worked perfectly.
The organizers of the present show are proud to have assembled all nine canvases from one of Vuillard’s earlier important decorative projects, The Public Gardens, a suite of tall, skinny pictures showing kids playing and nannies resting in Paris parks that Alexandre Natanson commissioned for his home in 1894. When John Russell wrote about the artist thirty years ago, he felt it a serious shame that these panels, having been separated over time, would probably never be brought together again. They are all in Washington, however, and, looked at as pieces of design and sheer craft, the works, which measure some eight feet high and have a particular grayed, sunless light and a lovely sense of space bowing out toward us, with lots of area in each canvas given over to the gravel that is so much a part of one’s experience of a Parisian garden, are impressive. Lined up all on one wall, though, they are hardly appearing as they were intended to be seen—which would have been in relation to doors, windows, and furniture, and across from one another, forming a kind of interrupted room within a room. At the show, they are fish out of water, and come across more as artifacts than as art.
Based on the other decorative ensembles that made it to the National Gallery and those that are reproduced in the catalog, it seems fair to say that Vuillard performed his role of decorator a little too literally and conscientiously. The same spirit that enabled him, as a person, to blend inconspicuously and winningly with one quite different familial, artistic, theatrical, fashionable, bohemian, or worldly milieu after another made him too well suited to the emotional neutrality that a decorative suite might prompt in even a temperamentally egocentric creator.
Neutrality infected Vuillard. The later man, who was primarily what might be called a portraitist of people in their daily lives, and whose works are generally far larger than his early ones, is less a good or a bad artist than an intelligent, tasteful craftsman. He is a man who has suspended some core element of himself, and so makes pictures that, although pleasing enough in their textures and colors, are essentially anonymous. (They’re like paintings by Degas that Degas overworked.) Trying to make a case for them, Cogeval says that this or that portrait is an “incredible character assassination.” But Vuillard’s people are really just bland. You take in these works, where the sitters, in their homes or offices, are surrounded by their lamps, telephones, pets, rugs, coffee cups, artworks on the wall, children’s toys, fountain-pen holders, stacks of mail, and seemingly scores of other items, all of which are exactly as engaging as the person at the center of it, with the same instantaneous avidity with which you pick up Architectural Digest; and you forget these pictures as immediately as you forget Architectural Digest.
In some cases Vuillard is on the verge of something personal. In views of the Louvre, he emphasizes an urn or a vitrine, with people shoved off to the edges of the canvas, as if we see everything as a fly would; yet there’s no real spatial tension in the work. Where Bonnard, in his later pictures, went overboard with his feathery, limp-edged drawing and his deliberately excessive yellow, violet, and orange palette, Vuillard never goes overboard on anything. He’s always attentive and energetic, but part of him simply is not there.
If Vuillard survives the attempt by the current show and catalog to turn him into yet another all-around master with a fifty-year-long career of supposed successes, it is because there are enough good early pictures to look at. The sense that the exhibition gives in its entirety, of a man who worked mightily hard, even into his very last years, and yet lost his imaginative spark when he was still relatively young, happens to be, too, of a piece with what is special about Vuillard. For surely there is a poetic irony in the way that an artist whose career as a whole conveys a sense of continual loss also provides, in certain of his works, the very opposite emotion. Coming, in a museum, upon one of those toy-like panels that somehow sends you on a beeline back to what was best about your childhood, you can suddenly feel entirely full. You can feel you have glimpsed the Rosebud of modern painting.
April 10, 2003