1. Life and work
Source: Oxford University Press
(i) Early work, to 1900
He was brought up in Paris in modest circumstances, and his home life was closely involved with his mother’s and elder sister’s dressmaking work. He attended the Lycée Condorcet where his contemporaries included the musician Pierre Hermant and the writer Pierre Véber, as well as Maurice Denis. His closest friend was Ker-Xavier Roussel, and, on leaving school in 1885, Roussel encouraged Vuillard to join him at the studio of the painter Diogène Maillart (1840–1926), where they received the rudiments of artistic training. Vuillard began to frequent the Louvre and soon determined on an artistic career, breaking the family tradition of a career in the army.
In March 1886 Vuillard entered the Académie Julian where he was taught by Tony Robert-Fleury, and on his third attempt in July 1887 he passed the entrance examination to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He was taught by Jean-Léon Gérôme for a brief period of about six weeks in 1888, but his studies at the Ecole appear to have been spasmodic. 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. From these sketches and from his earliest-known studies in oil, it is clear that Vuillard was drawn to the realistic study of still-life and domestic interiors. He was particularly attracted to the 17th-century Dutch artists and to the works of Chardin in La Caze collection.
In 1889 Vuillard was persuaded by Maurice Denis to join a small dissident 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 following his contact with Gauguin in Brittany. By means of a small landscape painted under Gauguin’s instructions, known as The Talisman (Paris, Mus. d’Orsay; for illustration see Sérusier, paul), Sérusier demonstrated the Synthetist method of painting; this entailed a reliance on memory and imagination rather than direct observation, and the application of forms and colours reduced to their simplest as equivalents to sensations and emotions received from nature. At first Vuillard was reluctant to accept the idea that the painter should not seek to reproduce realistically what he saw, although during 1890 he made his first bold experiments in Synthetist painting.
Vuillard painted these experimental works, usually based on a subject from his immediate environment, on small pieces of board. The earliest were painted in bright, often arbitrary colours with the subject reduced to its essential components; tones and hues were combined and balanced to produce a dense pattern-like surface. By 1892 he was using a more muted palette and had turned to family themes. La Causette (Edinburgh, N.G. Mod. A.), which depicts his mother and sister seated in an interior, is typical of this phase: painted predominantly in browns, it conveys the strong aura of mystery characteristic of much of Vuillard’s early work. Like other Nabi artists, especially Denis and Bonnard, Vuillard was influenced by the simplification and emphasis on expressive contour of 19th-century Japanese woodcuts. The theatre was an important stimulus on his choice of subjects and his predilection for muted and mysterious light effects. He was courted early on by such theatrical patrons as the actor Coquelin Cadet and by the theatre director André Antoine. His closest friend in the theatre was, however, the young actor–manager Aurélien Lugné-Poe who was largely responsible, through Paul Fort’s Théâtre d’Art and later through his own company L’Oeuvre, for introducing Symbolist drama to Paris. Vuillard not only attended many of the latter’s rehearsals and performances of plays by Maeterlinck, Ibsen, Strindberg and others but often painted scenery and designed costumes and programmes. Vuillard was a founder-member of Lugné-Poe’s Théâtre de l’Oeuvre, which opened in 1893. With other members of the Nabi group, Vuillard had exhibited small-scale works at the Le Barc de Boutteville gallery. Later in the 1890s he showed work at Ambroise Vollard’s; in 1897 the latter commissioned him to produce a series of colour lithographs on the theme Landscape and Interiors (1899; New York, MOMA).
An important factor in Vuillard’s development as a painter in the 1890s was his association with the Revue Blanche and his friendship with its editors, the Natanson brothers. The editor-in-chief and art critic was Thadée Natanson, and he and his wife, Misia (a frequent model during these years), became close friends of Vuillard. In 1892 Vuillard received a commission to paint panels (Paris, Desmarais priv. col.) for Paul Desmarais, a cousin of the Natansons; this was followed by a major decorative commission in 1894 from the wealthiest of the Natanson brothers, Alexandre, to paint nine panels for the dining-room of a grand mansion on the Avenue du Bois. Vuillard chose the theme of Public Gardens and produced an amalgam and imaginative reconstruction of his observations in the Tuileries or the Bois de Boulogne, for example Little Girls Playing and The Interrogation (both Paris, Mus. d’Orsay), and the figures of nannies seated gossiping while overseeing their charges. Although planned as a decorative ensemble, the panels were later dispersed, and the eight that survive (one was lost during World War II) are now housed in different museums (five panels, Paris, Mus. d’Orsay; Cleveland, OH, Mus. A.; Houston, TX, Mus. F.A.; Brussels, Mus. A. Mod.). In 1896 Vuillard was commissioned by Dr Henri Vaquez to paint four panels for a library, Figures and Interiors (Paris, Petit Pal.), and further important decorative commissions followed: two panels in 1898 for the novelist Jean Schopfer, Figures in the Garden of Le Relais, Villeneuve-sur-Yonne (priv. col., see 1954 exh. cat., pp. 66–7), and two in 1899 for Adam Natanson, Landscapes—Ile-de-France (Chicago, IL, A. Inst.; Pasadena, CA, Norton Simon Mus.).
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 Jos 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. Under his new commercial arrangements, Vuillard was encouraged to produce a wider range of work, landscapes and portraits as well as the decorative panels and small interiors typical of the 1890s. He found a new delight in landscape studies at this period, most of which were inspired by the seaside holidays in Normandy and Brittany that he spent with the Hessels. Work was plentiful, and he was commissioned to paint more decorative panels for private clients: between 1908 and 1910 he produced a series of eight views of Streets of Paris (New York, Guggenheim; priv. col.), acquired by the playwright Henry Bernstein, and between 1911 and 1913 an extensive decorative scheme for the vast seaside villa of the Bernheim-Jeune family at Villers-sur-Mer. In 1912 Vuillard received his first commission for a public building, a series of decorations in Paris on theatrical themes to ornament the foyer of the Comédie des Champs-Elysées, a theatre within the new Théâtre des Champs-Elysées (inaugurated in 1913). The two principal panels represent Classical Comedy (a scene from Molière’s Le Malade imaginaire) and Modern Comedy (a scene from Tristan Bernard’s Le Petit Café).
Portraiture became an increasingly dominant aspect of Vuillard’s work, and he found no shortage of sitters; many were fashionable members of the beau monde, others were intimate friends and professional associates. One of his most striking portraits of these years, Théodore Duret in his Study (1912; Washington, DC, N.G.A.), typifies Vuillard’s broad strategy, probably influenced by the theories of the late 19th-century Realist critic Edmond Duranty. He effectively amalgamated the role of portrait painter with that of painter of interiors, portraying his models in domestic settings characteristic of them and often, in the process, extending the psychological penetration of the portrait. In the case of Duret, the writer is shown in his study, surrounded by the books and papers that are the tools of his profession and by other paintings and portraits acquired over the years. Whereas during his Nabi phase Vuillard had simplified and pared down his vision to a flattened pattern and had frequently attracted criticism for imprecision, from c. 1900 he treated space in a more three-dimensional way. Typically he set his model well back into the picture space and in some instances lavished almost as much attention on the familiar objects and minutiae that make up the interior setting as on the distinguishing features of his sitter.
Vuillard’s established patterns of work were little affected by World War I. In 1914 he was called up to serve briefly as a railway look-out near Paris. He later served as a war artist, sketching soldiers on the front line at Gérardmer and producing a large painting recording the Interrogation of the Prisoner (1917; Paris, Mus. Hist. Contemp.). In 1916 he was commissioned by Thadée Natanson, director of the Lazare-Lévy munitions factory in Lyon, to record in two panels (Troyes, Mus. A. Mod.), as part of a decorative scheme, the assembly-line work at the factory. When hostilities ceased, Vuillard concentrated mainly on portraiture, still undertaking decorative commissions occasionally. The last of his major schemes for a private client was the series At the Louvre (1921–2; priv. col., see Thomson, pls 125-7), four panels and two overdoors inspired by different aspects of the Louvre’s collections. These were destined for the house of a Swiss friend whom Vuillard had met during the war. It is the only example of the artist’s private decorative schemes to remain intact, although not in situ.
Between 1923 and 1937 Vuillard painted four important portraits of his closest artist friends, all former members of the Nabi group: Roussel, Denis, Bonnard and Maillol, each of whom is shown at work in characteristic manner. The four portraits were shown at the Exposition Internationale of 1937 and bought with full-scale studies by the City of Paris (Paris, Petit Pal.). In the same year Vuillard painted a decorative panel, again on the theme of Comedy, for the inauguration of the Théâtre de Chaillot in Paris. The panel depicts characters from Shakespeare and Molière, in a bucolic setting inspired by the park of the Château des Clayes, the Hessels’ country home near Versailles. A final major project was an enormous mural (in situ) for the new League of Nations building in Geneva, the Palais des Nations, an ambitious and courageous undertaking but, given the traditional allegorical theme, scarcely one that Vuillard was ideally equipped to execute. He sought inspiration in the art of the past, particularly that of Eustache Le Sueur, an artist he had long admired. Vuillard was elected to the Institut de France in 1937, a mark of his country’s esteem, and in 1938 a major retrospective, selected by the artist’s friend Claude Roger-Marx, was held at the Pavillon de Marsan in Paris. Ill and severely distressed by the fall of France, Vuillard fled occupied Paris.
From Grove Art Online