Édouard Vuillard - Biography and Legacy
French Painter and Printmaker
La Baule-Escoublac, France
Biography of Édouard Vuillard
Childhood and Early Training
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.
In July of the following year, on his third attempt, he passed the entrance examination to the École des Beaux-Arts. He was taught by Jean-Léon Gérôme for a brief period of about six weeks in 1888. In 1888, Vuillard began to keep a journal in which he made sketches of works he was studying in the Louvre and noted ideas about future paintings. In these sketches and early works, Vuillard was drawn to the realistic study of still lifes and domestic interiors. He was also attracted to the 17th-century Dutch artists and to the works of Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin. Vuillard kept this private journal from 1888 to 1905 and, later, from 1907 to 1940.
In 1889, Vuillard was persuaded by Denis to join a small group of art students that had formed within the Académie Julian around Paul Sérusier and that referred to itself as the brotherhood of Nabis. Sérusier had communicated to his fellow students his knowledge of Synthetism - a form of Symbolism that relied on memory, imagination, and the use of color and shape to communicate feelings and ideas - following his contact with Paul Gauguin in Brittany. In 1892, on the advice of the Natanson brothers, Vuillard painted his first decorations ("apartment frescoes") for the house of Mademoiselle Desmarais. Subsequently, he fulfilled many other commissions of this kind. With other members of Les Nabis, Vuillard had exhibited small-scale works at the Le Barc de Boutteville Gallery. Later in the 1890s, he showed work through Ambroise Vollard; in 1897, Vollard commissioned him to produce a series of color lithographs on the themes of landscapes and interiors.
Like other Nabi artists, Vuillard was influenced by the simplification and emphasis on expressive contour of 19th-century Japanese woodcuts. The theater was also an important influence on his choice of subjects and muted and mysterious light effects. His closest friend in the theatre was Aurelien Lugne-Poe who, along with Paul Fort's Théâtre d'Art introduced Symbolist drama to Paris. Vuillard not only attended many of the latter's rehearsals and performances of plays by Maurice Maeterlinck, Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, and others, but often painted scenery and designed costumes and programs.
Also in the 1890s, Vuillard met and became friendly with the brothers Alexandre and Thadée Natanson, the founders of La Revue Blanche, a cultural review. The editor-in-chief was Thadée Natanson, and he and his wife, Misia (a frequent model during these years), became close friends of Vuillard's. Vuillard's graphics appeared in the journal, together with work by Pierre Bonnard, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Félix Vallotton, and other artists.
Late Years and Death
In the early years of the 20th century, Vuillard began to show work at the Parisian gallery of the Bernheim-Jeune family and was later contracted to them. Lucy Hessel, wife of Joseph Hessel, a partner in the firm, became a close friend, confidante and model, and Vuillard's time was spent increasingly in the Hessels' entourage, which included successful actors and playwrights, as well as wealthy business people.
By the 1910s, Vuillard began to treat his domestic scenes and portraits with a much more palpable sense of depth, and portraiture was an increasingly significant genre in his oeuvre. Vuillard found no shortage of sitters; many were members of fashionable society and/or personal friends or professional colleagues. During World War I, he was called to serve briefly in 1914, as a railway lookout near Paris. He later served as a war artist, sketching soldiers on the front line. However, Vuillard's style and interest in subject matter were, for the most part, not affected by the outbreak of World War I, and the artist continued to concentrate on decorative schemes, though his success would not match his output in the 1890s and the early-20th century. His occasional commissions included four portraits of Roussel, Denis, Bonnard, and Maillol of the Nabis, shown at the Exposition Internationale in Paris in 1937, and a final major mural project for the League of Nations Building, the Palais des Nations, in Geneva.
Vuillard was elected to the highly esteemed Institut de France in 1937, and in 1938, following a major retrospective curated by Vuillard's friend Claude Roger-Marx, he fled occupied Paris.
Notwithstanding the above achievements, Vuillard lived a generally withdrawn life, living with his mother until her death in 1928, and remaining a bachelor throughout. He died in La Baule on June 21, 1940.
The Legacy of Édouard Vuillard
Vuillard's work helped lay the foundation for modernist attitudes toward the arts in believing that a painting could create a parallel reality to the world at large. As a Nabi "prophet" of modern art, Vuillard's achievements as a colorist and as an experimenter in tone have been widely lauded. In addition, his abstract and decorative commissions have been identified in recent scholarship as significant antecedents of twentieth-century modernism, transcending traditional easel painting and moving into the realm of art-as-environment. The artist's large-scale, decorative works that brought painting and architecture together by uniting the flat, abstract picture surface with the two-dimensionality of the wall heralded the major theme of the last 100 years of seeking a more unified and aesthetic world in which to live and of uniting domestic and public arenas. Vuillard's embedding of his figures into a two-dimensional, decorative background also served as a significant precedent for the work of Henri Matisse, who employed similar means.