As a young painter in the 1890s, Vuillard became a member of the Parisian group of avant-garde artists known as the Nabis (“prophets” in Hebrew and Arabic). Taking their inspiration from the Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin (who was twenty years Vuillard's senior) as well as Toulouse-Lautrec (who was just four years older), the Nabis used simplified form and planes of pure color to create decorative, subtly emotive pictures, with a somewhat spiritual bent. During his Nabi period, which lasted through most of the last decade of the century, Vuillard produced some of his best-known works: paintings of friends and family (mostly his mother and sister) in closed interior spaces filled with patterned wallpapers, carpets, drapery, and clothing. His mother’s apartment, which she used as a workshop (she was a seamstress), figured prominently.
Edouard Vuillard, The Drawer, 1892, oil on canvas, 18 7/8 x 14 1/4 in.; Courtesy of The Jewish Museum.
The Drawer (1892) shows Vuillard’s interest in creating psychologically resonant images within the confines of the domestic interior. His mother’s workspace is presented through an arrangement of contrasting lights and shadows, patterned wallpaper, and draped fabrics, against solid passages of dark wood paneling. A dresser (loosely sketched in) has one drawer open, with a dress and sash spilling out, like a spectral, ectoplasmic figure. The sepia-toned passages of the painting refer perhaps to the photographic tableaus that Vuillard arranged and used as preparatory sketches and studies for his paintings. The spotted red/black/white/gray dot pattern of the wallpaper foreshadows Edvard Munch’s similar use of such a color motif in his later work Between the Clock and the Bed (1940–43). In The Reader (1897–99), a portrait of Romain Coolus, Vuillard flattens the planes of color, compressing the space of the picture, to focus all the attention on the young man’s absorption in his book.
Edouard Vuillard, The Reader (Romain Coolus), 1897–99, oil on cardboard, 13 3/8 x 10 5/8 in.; Courtesy of The Jewish Museum.
In another portrait, Aurélien Lugné-Poë (1891), Vuillard reveals something of his interest in contemporary theater. The actor and theater impresario Lugné-Poë shared a tiny studio on the Rue Pigalle with Vuillard and fellow Nabi Pierre Bonnard. Experimental drama flourished in Paris at the end of the nineteenth century. Vuillard was not only an avid theater attendee, but, as evidenced in the lithographic broadsheets and playbills on display (for Henrik Ibsen’s Rosmersholm and An Enemy of the People, both from the 1893 season), he also had a keen interest in graphic arts. He would later contribute set designs, lighting effects, and programs for plays by Ibsen, Maeterlinck, and Strindberg to the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre.
“I don’t paint portraits,” Vuillard once remarked, “I paint people in their surroundings.” Vuillard’s early interest in developing a psychological narrative in his interiors, as well as his work in theatrical productions, would ultimately be synthesized in later works such as David David-Weill (1925), an urbane and witty picture of an art patron ensconced within his trove of gilt-framed paintings (including Chardin and Guiard), stands as a sort of masterpiece of this later, mature style. Vuillard’s art, as it reached maturity, has been compared to the writing of Marcel Proust. For both artists, the meaning of the work was an accumulation of layers of lush visual detail, closely observed—at once capturing moments of time, and through their art, transcending it.
(Image on top: Edouard Vuillard, David David-Weill, 1925, Oil on canvas, 35 7/8 x 32 1/4 in.; Courtesy of The Jewish Museum)