French Painter and Printmaker
La Baule-Escoublac, France
Summary of Édouard Vuillard
Édouard Vuillard was a member of the Symbolist group known as Les Nabis (from the Hebrew and Arabic term for "prophets" and, by extension, the artist as the "seer" who reveals the invisible). However, he was less drawn to the mystical aspects of the group and more drawn to fashionable private venues where philosophical discussions about poetry, music, theatre, and the occult occurred. Because of his preference for the painting of interior and domestic scenes, he is often referred to as an "intimist," along with his friend Pierre Bonnard. He executed some of these "intimist" works in small scale, while others were conceived on a much larger scale made for the interiors of the people who commissioned the work.
- For Vuillard, reticent by nature, the subject of the interior served as a symbol for the interior self, separate from the rest of the world. This is an aspect of a modernist idea - the notion that one's personal viewpoint, a subjective view of reality, can gain insight into the truth.
- As a Symbolist painter and part of the fin-de-siècle escape into the aesthetic, Vuillard employed flat patterns into which his figures were embedded in order to express both emotion and ideas. This kind of abstract painting evolved to communicate ideas not expressible through traditional painterly means. Color and shape could represent experiences that are difficult to express in words.
- Although the Symbolists were, in general, anti-utilitarian (and more art-for-art's sake), Vuillard created large-scale screens and murals that were architectural in conception (and part of the "applied arts"). These large-scale works - intended for the use of interior decoration - linked him to other modernists' search for the "total work of art" (the Gesamtkunstwerk) that would help unify society, but updated it to function in contemporary interior spaces.
Biography of Édouard Vuillard
Jean-Édouard Vuillard, the son of a retired captain, spent his youth at Cuiseaux (Saone-et-Loire), France. But in 1878 his family moved to Paris in modest circumstances. After his father's death in 1884, Vuillard received a scholarship to continue his education. In the Lycée Condorcet, Vuillard met Ker Xavier Roussel (also a future painter and Vuillard's future brother-in-law), Maurice Denis, musician Pierre Hermant, and writer ierre Véber, among others. Vuillard began visiting the Louvre regularly, which influenced his decision to become an artist, but broke with the family tradition of an army career. In 1885, Vuillard left the Lycée Condorcet and joined Roussel at the studio of painter Diogène Maillart. There, Roussel and Vuillard received the rudiments of artistic training. In March 1886, Vuillard embarked upon the fairly rigid curriculum at the Académie Julian where he was taught by Tony Robert-Fleury, and met Pierre Bonnard, with whom he shared a studio.
Important Art by Édouard Vuillard
Vuillard is pictured here with his mother, grandmother, and sister, Marie. In this work the artist contrasts the idea of dinnertime, which is usually a coming together of human solidarity and communication, with the scene pictured here, where each silent family member occupies a separate space, symbolizing their separate inner thoughts. There is bread and wine, but no one is eating or drinking. Madame Vuillard dominates at the left with her massive lateral, and compact silhouette, as she hunches over her task of lighting a flame, her bent elbow and head shrunken down into the neck both shutting out all proximate figures. A highlight of candlelit negative space separates Mme. Vuillard from the grandmother, who likewise shrinks down into herself, her face depicted only with an area of dark shadowing. Marie assumes a frontal stance toward the viewer, but seems to withdraw into a tightened facial expression and magisterially clutching, as if for protection, a sturdy baguette. The artist occupies a separate physical space as he peers from the background through an open doorway. In a subtle bit of irony, typical of Vuillard, a peaceful and idyllic painted landscape leans in toward the scene from above, only serving to underscore the tensions below it. This is a fine example of Vuillard's unique ability to transform cozy domesticity so as to reveal the underlying psychological drama.
Vuillard painted many pictures of women sewing because his mother (shown at the right) ran a corset-making shop and presumably also worked as a dressmaker, given the presence of so many patterned fabrics in the workspace. It has been pointed out that Vuillard's paintings often show the influence of his familiarity with the theater, as in this work with the figures' postures, gestures, and positioning in space. Sewing - an intense, quiet, and inward activity - is here interrupted by the theatrically timed "entrance" of the centrally placed male figure (Ker-Xavier Roussel, who was to marry Vuillard's sister Marie, shown here gazing toward him as he opens the door).
The figures seem locked into the shapes of their flattened forms or the patterns of their attire and surroundings, particularly the women, who are also depicted with the least individuality. They are symbols of the work they perform: the color and pattern of Marie's dress, for example, is reiterated several times in the blocks of space that surround her. Her patterned dress and surroundings call to mind her everyday work of sewing patterned dresses from patterned bolts of fabric. This work is an example of Vuillard's unique ability to use color and pattern to symbolize states of being such as the repetitiveness of work and/or the loss of individuality through work.
This painting depicts Vuillard's sister Marie and his mother Mme. Vuillard. The figures merge and interact with the space. Through pattern, Marie blends into her surroundings; through pattern, the artist is able to suggest that she is what she does. There is a struggle between figure and space, creating an uneasy symbiosis between figure and environment that instills a feeling of psychological disturbance as her form bends to fit the space and suggests ambivalent human relationships. The interior of the space is a burden to Marie, while Mme. Vuillard dominates it.
This work is also an example of the Nabi credo of respecting the overall pattern, the two-dimensional surface, and decorative schema. Although gender and class issues may be subtlety alluded to here, Vuillard's work also alludes to that time of transition when women were entering the workforce. Mme. Vuillard seems perfectly comfortable with, in fact in charge of, her surroundings, while the younger generation, personified by Marie, struggles against the confinement.
This painting of the artist's mother and sister is not an example of portraits in the traditional sense. Here Marie's physiognomy (and posture) is as a puppet/marionette with the upturned and slightly pinched nose and solid black dot of an eye as if a sewn-on piece of felt. This aspect of a puppet, while mildly humorous, can elicit pathos as well. Mme. Vuillard's face, on the other hand, is more like a mask atop a stalwart black silhouette - both entrenched and immovable. Because he is able to generalize, Vuillard's portraits are amongst his most communicative means, and are all the more psychologically intense. In Vuillard's work, the facial features - even when they are altered - become the very symbols of all intense feeling. Vuillard has created his own more modern version of a portrait: the artist combines the specific features of the actual person with non-human and generalized features and thus can refer symbolically to all humanity.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Édouard Vuillard
- VuillardBy Belinda Thomson
- Édouard VuillardOur PickBy Guy Cogeval
- Édouard Vuillard: Catalogue RaisonneOur PickBy Antoine Salomon, Guy Cogeval
- Édouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1980-1940By Stephen Brown, Richard R. Brettell
- The Nabis and Intimate ModernismOur PickBy Katherine M. Kuenzli
- The Nabis: Bonnard, Vuillard and Their CircleBy Claire Freches-Thory, Antoine Terrasse
- Mere Society Paintings? Look AgainBy Ken Johnson / The New York Times / May 10, 2012
- Édouard Vuillard's Jewish MusesBy Paul Fishbane / Tablet Magazine / May 3, 2012
- Rich PickingsBy Jonathan Jones / The Guardian / January 23, 2004
- Pictures at an Exhibition: Do Vuillard's Photographs Belong on the Walls of the National Gallery?By Blake Gopnik / Slate / March 24, 2003
- Themes of Vuillard: Naturalism to the DaringOur PickBy Roberta Smith / The New York Times / June 8, 1990
- The Silent Drama in Vuillard's RoomsBy Mary Gordon / The New York Times / May 13, 1990