I do not know which to prefer, The beauty of inflections Or the beauty of innuendoes, The blackbird whistling Or just after.--Wallace Stevens
... peindre non la chose, mais l'effet qu'elle produit.
There are few artists whose signature work is as immediately likable but at the same time as difficult to plumb as that of Edouard Vuillard. His best work is both supremely fetching and quietly unfathomable: as easy, familiar, and welcome as dinnertime yet fraught with--what? Aldous Huxley was a great admirer of Vuillard's work. In an unpropitious moment, he declared that the painter was "the DharmaBody manifested in the bourgeois bedroom." How that would have alarmed Vuillard! Quite right, too.
The Dharma-Body aside, there is something enigmatic about Vuillard's charm. He died in 1940, in his seventy-second year. His work is indisputably "modern"--the critic Julius Meier-Graefe described it as Cezanne "translated into more intimate terms"--yet in many respects it seems to hail from a previous vintage. Vuillard's lifelong friend Pierre Bonnard was a year older but seems, taken all in all, almost a generation younger. (1) Why?
It is hard to say. Size is one ingredient, at least for some pictures. Many of Vuillard's best-known works are quite small, hardly bigger than a sheet of foolscap, yet they register an abundance of emotion--too much, it seems, for the available real estate. There is also the issue of obliqueness, a sort of painterly double-take. Vuillard implicated an element of hindsight, of deja-vu, into every first impression. He was a very private man: hard to know. Great revelations were expected when his voluminous journals were published a decade ago. They added details--there was this mistress and that luncheon party, sketches and doodles galore of people and scenes. The Journals also provide some amusing gossip. "Go to Isadora Duncan's," Vuillard scribbled in 1915, "received with great coquetry, long idle chats ending with me kissing her." But Vuillard's coquetry is even greater than Duncan's: the man in whole continues to deliquesce.
We come to Vuillard as we come to his pictures, askew, missing part of the plot. His pictures tend to occupy that capacious, halflit storeroom of feeling where preeminence is guaranteed more by affection than by dispassionate evaluation. They are part of the family: somehow our family, once-removed. Everything is once-removed. Intimacy--the one inescapable word when we come to Vuillard--is both imperative and baffled, lonely. Vuillard went to extraordinary lengths to nurture that janus-faced intimacy. We are not surprised to learn that he lived with his mother--his "muse" as he often said--until her death in 1928, when he was sixty. She was the bulwark of his world: a mundus muliebris (the phrase crops up often in the literature on Vuillard), which doted on Vuillard as its immovable center.
It was not entirely a feminine world, though. The painter Kerr-Xavier Roussel was probably Vuillard's closest friend. They met at the Lycee Condorcet. That fabled Parisian school, which, one critic noted, pursued "a ferocious unrelenting, all-demanding attitude toward knowledge" also introduced Vuillard to many life-long friends: Bonnard, Maurice Denis, and others. The handsome, outgoing Roussel was a notorious womanizer. Vuillard's solution was to encourage him to marry his sister, Marie. It did not stop Roussel's amorous adventures, but it did help safeguard Vuillard's homelife, assuring him of Roussel's continued presence.
Born in Cuiseaux, some three hundred miles from Paris, Vuillard was the youngest of three children. His father, twenty-seven years his mother's senior, was a retired soldier who turned to tax collecting when invalided out of the army. (Vuillard remembers seeing Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, at that time among the most famous painters in France, pull up in his tilbury to pay his taxes.) The Vuillards moved to Paris in 1877. Young Edouard, strictly educated by the Marist priests, had planned to follow his father and brother into the army. "I could think of nothing else" he recalled, "in which I could possibly distinguish myselff." By the time his father died, in 1884, he had begun to dabble in art. By the end of the decade, encouraged by Roussel and others, he had thrown himself into it. Vuillard, who did nothing lightly, later recalled that it was outside a stationer's in the Passage de Havre that he finally decided to become a full time painter. It seems odd that so original an artist as Vuillard should find as teachers the arch-academicians Gerome (at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts) and Bouguereau (Academie Julian). But then it turned out that Vuillard discovered his real teachers among his friends and, even more, among the masterpieces he studied at the Louvre.
A typical picture by Vuillard--of seamstresses at work in his mother's dress shop, of a family dining, of a couple communing over music--stays in the mind as much by the tone or atmosphere it diffuses as by the scene it delineates. Even when painting people in conversation, he seems to focus on the moments between words, the pauses in which emotions flicker and shift, in which new thoughts are born. In his book on the Symbolist movement, Robert Goldwater spoke in this context of
devotion to the effective sum of infinite suggestion, the indirect glance which catches reality unawares.... In the end a heavily laden psychological atmosphere pushes through the surface of domestic ordinariness, unifying the whole with a sense of charged personal relations more real than any analytic phenomenal observation.
In such pictures, the prime incident is elsewhere. The stone has been dropped offstage. Vuillard's canvases register not the plunge but the retreating ripples of emotion and chromatic harmony. They speak softly yet echo long. "We enjoy the same sort of intimacy with him as in conversation with certain agreeable people" Meier-Graefe wrote in the early 1900s, "when the talk results in a mutual perception of subtle things, when thoughts no longer require words for their interchange, and we are silent lest we disturb them."
If this sounds like one version of French exquisiteness, well, yes: Vuillard knew (slightly) and admired Mallarme; he turned down--how Proustian that gesture!--an offer to illustrate Un Amour de Swann. Vuillard was a canny psychologist--he kept his eyes every bit as open as did Proust--but he also kept his canniness intact: he painted, he did not expatiate. His exquisiteness, in other words, was pragmatic, down-to-earth. His appeal, strange to say, is visceral, if delicately so. His work lodges as firmly in the blood as does any art, but its importunities are decorous--or at least discreet. Vuillard was present at the first reading of Mallarme's "Un coup de des"; when asked what he thought, he only smiled. Another guest that evening said Vuillard seemed totally bemused.
All of which is to say that Vuillard was a complex, many-sided character. Just how many-sided we can now see in the mammoth traveling exhibition of his work currently on view at the National Gallery in Washington. (2) The catalogue lists three-hundred and thirty-four works. Not every object will be shown at every venue, but in Washington the viewer is all-but-overwhelmed by the scale of the exhibition: paintings in various media, lithographs, drawings, more paintings--portraits and self-portraits, screens, wall-decorations-dozens of photographs.
The photographs were a surprise. Vuillard acquired his Kodak in 1897. He must have been a bit of a bore with it: "Hold, please!" Click ... Vuillard was extremely assiduous in minuting his life. His journals are part of the record. The 1,750 photographic "memoranda" he left behind are another. They are fascinating, the photographs. How could they fail to be? "Pierre Bonnard, Rue des Batignolles" "Odilon Redon in Saint-Georges de Didonne," "Auguste Renoir in his Studio" "Kerr-Xavier Roussel dancing nude, Rue Truffaut." Are the photographs more than historical curiosities? A few, perhaps, especially some of Vuillard's mother. Most of them, however, are more of anthropological or anecdotal than aesthetic interest: a picnic with one mistress, luncheon with another, on the road to Grenada with a friend.
This exhibition is as complete as any exhibition of Vuillard's work is ever likely to be. Missing are some immovable large-scale decorations--for the Comedie des Champs-Elysees (1912), for example--and the odd important picture: Married Life (c. 1894), for example, a quietly harrowing, atmospheric oil depicting a distraught couple. The figures in that famous painting are Vuillard's sister, Marie, and Roussel, suspended in grim silence after Marie has delivered a stillborn baby. A high chair stands in the background between the couple, useless now but still recriminating.
But occasional omissions aside, this exhibition presents a very full record of Vuillard's artistic activity. Many familiar works are here: the Gauguinesque Self-portrait with Cane and Straw Hat (c. 1891), Lunchtime (1892), The Yellow Curtain (c. 1893), A Family Evening (1895), The Table: End of a Lunch at the Vuillard Home (c. 1895), and a dozen others. As the dates suggest, the 1890s were Vuillard's great decade: before was mostly apprentice stuff--working through, assimilating Corot, Puvis, Gauguin, Seurat--afterwards came much superb work, but never again in such profusion.
One of the high points of the exhibition--of Vuillard's entire career--is the suite of wall panels he did for his friends Thadee and Misia Natanson. The Striped Blouse (1895) from the National Gallery and The Tapestry (1895) from the Museum of Modern Art will be familiar to many: they are gorgeous signature works. The other panels, from private collections, are less well-known but no less spectacular. Vuillard met Thadee Natanson in 1891, the year he and his brother founded La Revue blanche. It was a moment--long since past--when "avant-garde" and "aesthetic quality" were not antithetical terms. Throughout its eleven-year run, La Revue blanche was the premier avant-garde journal in France-perhaps anywhere. It was also among the best. When the Berlin Philharmonic came to Paris, it was Debussy who reported on the visit. Mallarme's poem "Tennyson" first appeared in its pages. The journal's general secretary was Fdlix Feneon. Lion Blum was among the regular contributors. Bonnard contributed frontispieces, as did Vuillard. The journal cast its net wide. "It was" one critic noted,
as interested in Bismarck's birthday as in the new opera by Mascagni, on which F. T. Marinetti ... reported from La Scala. Thadee Natanson's first article on art, in 1893, had to do with Utamaro and Hiroshige; and any reader who took La Revue blanche for a review of an other-worldly aesthetical character would have acknowledged his mistake after working through the very long articles in which the aesthetician Charles Henry discussed the question "How should a bicyclist train for maximum endurance?"
The world of La Revue blanche became part of Vuillard's world, part, so to speak, of his family. It even provided him with another muse, competition for his mother, in the person of Misia Natanson. Vuillard, if not in love with Misia, was certainly infatuated by her. But then enchantment seems to have been prominent among that extraordinary woman's gifts. An accomplished pianist, Misia had been a prize student of Gabriel Faure. She won high praise from Liszt. She was mistress of a brilliant salon. Mallarme wrote a poem about her. Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec (another Revue stalwart), Bonnard, and Vuillard all painted her portrait. In Vuillard's pictures, she emerges as a strong but somewhat melancholy character, distracted and self-absorbed, qualities abundantly confirmed by her somewhat fantastical autobiography.
It is a testimony to Vuillard's power that one can walk through rooms full of familiar paintings and still have one's breath taken away. Meier-Graefe noted that "there is always something in the background with [Vuillard]. It is possible to have one of his interiors in the house for a month, and one fine day to discover a figure in the corner, and not only a figure, but a whole story." This exhibition confirms Meier-Graefe's observation and raises it to a higher power. For it turns out that there is also often something in the foreground with Vuillard, something which, whether or not one has noticed it, nevertheless has the power to absorb one's attention like (if I may so put it) an old friend seen for the first time.
I said that there is a lot that is familiar in this exhibition. But it is also the case that Vuillard emerges as a much more various artist than most of us have known. He also, I believe, emerges as a greater artist than we may remember--though the greatness does not flow from the variousness. On the contrary, this exhibition shows that Vuillard made several forays that, if not exactly wrong turns, were at least diluting expenditures. For one thing, Vuillard found it difficult to work on a large scale without losing that pregnant, if hard-to-define, quality that infuses his best small works. Occasionally, he managed it. Some of the Natanson panels, for example, are quite large, as are the remarkable violet-hued paintings in the suite of decorations he did for Dr. Henri Vaquez in 1896. (What a sequence of Vuillard-esque titles those four Figures in an Interior present! "Work," "Choosing a Book" "Intimacy" "Music.") Generally, however, as Vuillard's paintings became larger, they also became less concentrated.
Vuillard also had his special subjects, subjects that spoke most responsively to his genius. In brief, the closer to his extended family circle Vuillard remained, the more powerful his paintings. One of the surprises of this exhibition was how far afield from such subjects Vuillard probed. Who would have thought that Vuillard, in his capacity as official war artist, would paint a German prisoner of war being interrogated (1917)? It is in some ways a remarkable picture; but is it a Vuillard? One has similarly ambivalent feelings about paintings like The Surgeons (1912-1914), a sort of updated, post-Impressionist version of Eakins's Gross Clinic. It's an impressive work. But I am not sure it is an impressive Vuillard.
By the end of his career, Vuillard was a very famous artist, much in demand by the rich as a portraitist. Vuillard famously declared that "I don't paint portraits. I paint people in their homes." But after about 1915 Vuillard's depictions of people and places--of people in places--tend to lose the conviction and mysteriousness that stamp much of his earlier work. Sometimes, that loss came with greater specificity. We tend to think of a Vuillard portrait as an essay in Impressionism: Debussy on canvas. But by the 1920S and 1930s, Vuillard was becoming more and more particularistic. The Countess Anna de Noailles, waiting for Vuillard to come to paint her portrait, admonished her maid: "For heaven's sake put away that cold cream. You know how Monsieur Vuillard never leaves anything out." Still, there are some remarkable pictures from his late period--The "Voiles de Genes" Boudoir (1931), for example, a portrait of Madame Fernand Javal, wife of an important parfumeur. Vuillard manages to enlist the garish electric lights to an almost Chardinesque purpose: the room is overlit but almost as an effective stage set might be. In general, though, the more public Vuillard became the less distinctive was his work.
It has often been noted that Vuillard's best paintings have a signal dramatic quality--intense, though almost plotless, his protagonists suspended in a wordless amber of insinuation. Not for nothing did Vuillard begin his career in association with his old school friend Aurelien Marie Lugne --Lugne-Poe, as he became, apparently in homage to that other Poe, Edgar Allan. Lugne-Poe--actor, director, producer, allround cultural impresario--brought the work of modernists like Ibsen, Maeterlinck, and Strindberg to the Paris stage in the 1890s.
Vuillard was an inveterate theater-goer, a theater-collaborator. One of his first jobs was to design programs and design and paint stage sets for Lugne-Poe's new Theatre de l'Oeuvre (Vuillard contributed the name), where Ibsen's Rosmersholm and The Master Builder had their Paris debuts. Vuillard often painted with oil on canvas. But it was while working for the theater that he developed his technique of peinture a la colle, painting with heated glue into which pigment had been mixed. Often he painted on unfinished cardboard. The process helped him achieve the lush surface and warm colors he loved, but it also proved to be a great danger for collectors. Attempting to brighten up his paintings, they not infrequently had them varnished. If the cardboard had been completely covered with paint, the varnish did no harm; but if there were any areas exposed, the varnish would soak into the cardboard, leaving dark brown spots that disfigured the painting forever.
A number of Vuillard's theater programs survive. None of his stage sets do. All those flats--quickly painted and then repainted when the next production loomed--are lost. There are not even any sketches to hint at what the ensemble looked liked. But it is easy to imagine that Vuillard's paintings from that period--those small, jewel-like portraits and domestic scenes--are distilled notes for a misplaced drama of his own invention. One critic called Vuillard a "microdramatist." Many of his pictures from the 1890s underscore the word's aptness.
That said, the Ibsen-Strindberg connection can be overstated. Mallarme's famous letter of 1864 to Henri Cazalis, in which he speaks of his efforts to invent a new poetic language and his ambition to "paint not the thing, but the effect the thing produces" is often quoted in discussions of Vuillard.
More a propos, perhaps, is the even more famous line from "Brise Marine": "La chair est triste, helas! et j'ai lu tous les livres." Triste is the mot juste. Vuillard's world inflects several degrees of sadness. But the sadness never descends to hysteria, menace, or even unadulterated angst. Vuillard's shyness, his love of comfort, and above all his essential sanity were too great for that.
In 1971, the Art Gallery of Ontario mounted a substantial exhibition of Vuillard's work--not as large as the current omnibus, but substantial nonetheless. The curator was the critic John Russell, whose catalogue essay is still one of the very best things written about the artist. Among other things, it offers a corrective--a series of correctives--to the temptation of casting Vuillard in the wrong sort of drama. "It might be true, in one sense" Russell notes,
that our destinies were played out in a Nordic twilight, essence against essence, spirit against invisible spirit. But meanwhile there was a good meal on the stove, and amusing things were being said, and people were getting on with life much as they had always done, and on every hand there was something to be looked at, and something to be got down on paper, and much to rejoice at in the play of one individual nature against another. Vuillard was not vivacious in society, but in his work he had the kind of sharp-focused understanding that is more enlivening, in the end, than any amount of boisterous high spirits. The particular won out, in his art, against the general.
Vuillard's theatricality was the un-histrionic drama of patient observation: wry, witty, empathetic or sardonic as the occasion demanded, but never extreme. (There was never, Russell notes, anything "wayward or bohemian about Vuillard.") The lushness and muted ambience of many of Vuillard's most familiar pictures have led us to neglect the animating element of wit, rarely absent from his pictures. In the end, Russell wrote, Vuillard's "subject was the human comedy as it is lived out in Paris, and he saw it as a born dramatist would see it."
We tend to think of Vuillard primarily as an indoor, even a hot-house, phenomenon. His best-known works--most of them--are of confined or at least plush interiors. This association of Vuillard with the parlor began early. In 1891 and 1892, when he was still in his early twenties, Vuillard, together with Bonnard and others in their circle, contributed to group shows of Impressionist and Symbolist work at Le Barc de Bouteville. Writing about the 1892 exhibition, the critic Gustave Geoffroy, noting that Bonnard and Vuillard both had "the gift of nuance," dilated in particular on "M. Vuillard's interiors, his Reclining Woman, his Woman Mending, his Luncheon, [which] prove him to be ... an intimist with a delicious sense of humor. He knows how to be funny and sad, all at once, with a hand that is as sure as it is light."
It would be difficult to improve on that. Still, it is worth stressing that the "intimist" Vuillard was in his own quiet fashion something of a boulevardier--one might almost say a flaneur, taking a page from Baudelaire, did the word not connote a very un-Vuillardesque idleness and insouciance. Unlike Baudelaire's dandy, Vuillard was, in Russell's phrase, "conscientiousness personified." Above all, Vuillard was a tireless observer. The humble fabric of everyday life-infinitely trivial, utterly absorbing--was his purview. It fueled his pathos, it underwrote his humor. "If people came to call" Russell noted,
he watched them narrowly, as clever children watch their elders. If his mother sat mending her stockings, he noted exactly the point of maximum tension, somewhere just above the elbows. He could not see a door without wondering who would come through it, or look at a park bench without wondering who had sat on it last. He was witty, and observant, and he took nothing for granted.
All of which was a prescription for lucid emotional accuracy, however gorgeous the embroidery with which it was presented.
In the art-history books, Vuillard is dutifully identified as a member of the Nabis, the close-knit group of school friends whose founding members included Vuillard, Bonnard, Roussel, and Denis (the theoretician of the group, in so far as it had one). "Nabi" is Hebrew for "prophet" and some members went in for the usual hierophantic accoutrements-special clothes, symbols, and so on--but neither Vuillard nor Bonnard had any truck with that sort of thing. (Vuillard, Russell observed, was "one of the least cranky men who ever lived") One fact about the Nabis to keep in mind is the astonishing youth of its founding proponents. Denis was still nineteen when he famously admonished, in his Definition du neo-traditionnisme, that we "remember that before it is a warhorse, a naked woman, or a trumpery anecdote, a painting is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order" (A recapitulation, for painters, of Mallarme's observation that "You don't make a poem with ideas, but with words"? Perhaps.) Vuillard was happy to be called a Nabi if that meant consorting with friends, indulging in agreeable conversation, and pursuing shared aesthetic passions. But he was as undoctrinaire about the Nabis' program as he was about every other program. "I have" he wrote to Denis in 1898, "a horror (or, rather, an absolute terror) of general ideas that I have not arrived at by myself."
The curator of this stupendous exhibition is Guy Cogeval, director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and author of an eighteen-hundred-page critical catalogue of Vuillard's works. Cogeval is very learned about Vuillard. He has many illuminating things to say about his work.
He also, unfortunately, has some supremely silly things to say. Opening the catalogue at random, my eye fell on the title of the first section: "Permanent Transgression": not a propitious overture, since one thing Vuillard most definitely was not was "transgressive." Well, a title is only a title. Unfortunately, Cogeval's long essay was not an improvement. Of an early self-portrait, he assures readers that Vuillard "here ... reveals his narcissistic fear of death and castration, conjured by the appearance in the image of a double, the Doppelgainger dear to Otto Rank" etc. Really? What planet did that fall from? Everyone who studies Vuillard remarks on the close, feminine environment of his home. But what does it mean to say that his home "provided Vuillard with a solid base in the general flux of signs." Have we strayed into a seminar on structuralism? Discussing Vuillard's sister, Cogeval speaks of Vuillard's "Expressionist scenes where the mother exerts an almost sado-masochistic power over her daughter." The picture he adduces is The Conversation (1891-1892): take a look. Find any traces of sado-masochism? No? Then scrutinize Doctor Louis Viau (1936-1937), a portrait of the doctor in his office surrounded by medical paraphernalia. According to Cogeval, the medical instruments "irresistibly evoke instruments of torture": be assured that most people will find it perfectly easy to resist. I do not particularly care for Vuillard's portrait of Countess Anna de Noailles, but can it really be said that Vuillard let himself go "with bloodthirsty delight" in creating an unflattering portrait?
Cogeval, I suspect, thinks that his outre interpretations will make Vuillard more appealing to our demotic, post-everything sensibility. He makes sure that Vuillard is supplied with a full complement of sexual adventures and low motives. Vuillard's match-making of his sister and Roussel is "quite mad and extremely selfish." Vuillard's humor--for many of us, one of the artist's most exquisite achievements--is for Cogeval "savage." Perhaps all this is supposed to make Vuillard more accessible. The consolation is that it leaves the essential Vuillard completely untouched. We close the book and return to the gallery. Vuillard's mysteries are undisturbed.
(1) Though Meier-Graefe did perhaps exaggerate when he wrote that "There are superficial observers who cannot distinguish Bonnard from Vuillard. They have as much in common as Andre Theuriet and Pierre Louys; they both speak French." Well, Vuillard sometimes spoke "Bonnard" as, for example, in the Bonnardesque decorations for Bois-Lurette, the Bernheim Villa in Normandy (1912-1913).
(2) "Edouard Vuillard" is on view at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., from January 19-April 20, 2003. It then travels to The Montreal Museum of Art, Montreal (May 15-August 24, 2003), Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris (September 23, 2003-January 4, 2004), and the Royal Academy of Arts, London (January 31-April 18, 2004). A catalogue of the exhibition, by Guy Cogeval, et al., has been copublished by The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the National Gallery of Art, Washington (528 pages, $65).
Roger Kimball's latest book is Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse (Ivan R. Dee).
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|Title Annotation:||Edouard Vuillard|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2003|
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