If it was Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec who indelibly captured the spectacle of public life in the cafés and cabarets of Paris in the 1890s, it was Édouard Vuillard who conjured the muffled quiet and richly patterned textures of private life inside the city’s bourgeois homes and gardens. His scenes of everyday life were anchored in the family’s apartment—intimate realms dominated by women. Interior, Mother and Sister of the Artist (1893) exemplifies the introspective, subtly disquieting mood that Vuillard achieved by allowing flattened, compressed space and complex patterning to nearly obscure the figures in his compositions. In doing so, he treated all the elements in his paintings as equal components of an ornamental whole. “I don’t do portraits,” he said. “I paint people in their surroundings.”
Vuillard’s father died when he was 15; afterward, his mother supported the family as a seamstress. Her love and knowledge of the materials of her craft made an impression on the young artist—he developed an interest in the most decorative and intimate objects of their workroom apartment: jumbled off-cuts of fabric, curtains, lamps. He abandoned his plans for a military career and by 1890 had joined forces with artists Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, and others to form a group that called itself Les Nabis (from the Hebrew for prophet). With them he shared an admiration for the asymmetrical stylizations of Japanese woodblock prints, and for the bold color and flattened space that Paul Gauguin was forging in avant-garde painting. Collectively, the Nabis artists maintained that art was a synthesis of metaphors and symbols manifested in everyday life. “I go on with my work according to my conscience, endeavouring to express what I feel and what I love, and I have no other goal,” Vuillard explained.
In 1890 Vuillard shared a studio with Bonnard, his closest peer, and others, including the actor and theater director Aurélien Lugné-Poe. The Nabis painters’ close connection to the Symbolist theater, also emerging at that time, was important to Vuillard’s development as an artist, and he produced stage sets and theater programs for Lugné-Poe’s Theatre de l’Oeuvre (1893). Vuillard and the Nabis also contributed illustrations to the progressive journal La revue blanche, which was closely connected to that theater. Vuillard became close to the journal’s founders, the brothers Alexandre and Thadée Natanson, who gave him some of the first of many commissions he received from the French patron class for large-scale panel paintings to decorate their homes. Thadée Natanson’s young wife, Misia, appeared in many of Vuillard’s shimmering interiors of the 1890s, such as The Game of Checkers (1899). A pianist, hostess, and champion of the Nabis and the Symbolists, she is often identifiable because of her large, top-knotted hairstyle.
The Nabis mounted their final group exhibition in 1900. That same year Vuillard, who never married, met Lucy Hessel (the wife of his dealer, Jos Hessel), and the two began an affair that endured for 40 years. Together with his mother and Misia Natanson, Lucy is the third of the three women who appear most often in Vuillard’s paintings. After 1914, Vuillard’s focus shifted in part to commissioned society portraits executed in a more naturalistic style. Remaining ever sensitive to the subtle frissons of modern life, he continued to transform everyday interior happenings textured by the integral roles of his family, friends, and patrons into the subject of his oeuvre.
Angelique Rosales Salgado, Curatorial Fellow, Department of Drawings and Prints, 2020