Édouard Vuillard attended the Lycée Condorcet in Paris, where he made friends with Maurice Denis, Lugné-Poe, and Ker-Xavier Roussel, later his brother-in-law. He studied in Maillart’s studio; for six weeks came under the tutelage of Jean-Léon Gérôme at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris; and later under William Bouguereau and Robert at the Académie Julian, where he became closely linked with the Nabis group (from the Hebrew word for ‘prophet’). He met Marcel Proust in 1902. From 1908, he taught at the Académie Ranson. In 1937, he was elected member of the Institute.
At first, Vuillard painted small subjects, disciplined and proficient, qualities for which the prestigious École Française was famous. His earliest still-lifes (1888) are astonishing in their decisiveness and subtlety. His empathy for the object had already compelled him to soften its appearance; the object, which, by virtue of its bright or glossy presence, remained the nonego and the ‘thing represented’ for so many others. ‘Intimacy’ developed immediately between the painter and this modest environment; inhabiting it every day enabled him to celebrate its splendour, and it was to remain his favourite environment. But he was already alternating between small portraits and still-lifes, which gained recognition because of their natural qualities and dignity of tone: a rare combination in a beginner.
About 1890, influenced indirectly by Paul Gauguin, all the certainties which the self-styled Nabis painters had contented themselves with suddenly collapsed. Everything was called into question again: both the linear layout of the picture and its colour scheme; the choice of subject and its material aspect; its manufacture and its purpose. Vuillard’s paintings at that time show surprising, bold innovations and an arbitrary power, which one would expect 15 or 20 years later at the height of the Fauvist period. The preoccupation with an internal geometry set them apart from earlier studies. From then on, the paintings were based on forms, lines, and colours. Vuillard made concessions. He produced a portrait or interior with its furniture and its wallpapers, in which the family inhabiting it, evolves. Treated with flat areas of colour and solid shades of ochres, reds, blues, and saffron yellow, without modulation, they seem to prefigure certain paintings by Henri Matisse and Roger de La Fresnaye.
In 1891, Vuillard painted an Elegant Lady, a silhouette seen from the back; a long vertical shape starting from the hair decorated with brown feathers; there is a kind of pink cloak, the tight and never-ending black skirt, erect in front of a half-open, bright orange door in a green wall, from where the light of another vertical shape emerges, which is bright yellow, and is reflected in red on the parquet at the feet of the elegant lady. This painting meets his concerns about the actual moment of creating ‘harmonies corresponding to our feeling’, and by virtue of its almost geometric structure, its drawing entirely free of detail, its light effects and colour harmonies, very much prefigures aspects of the future Abstraction movement and is oddly reminiscent of the final period of Nicolas de Staël.
All too often, Vuillard is only admired in his role as the harmonist, the serene contemplator who combines an exquisite sense of nuance, rhythms, and values with the most acute observation. These singular investigations, these three-dimensional meditations including a table, a folding metal cot, a reclining figure, a familiar face (often his own) were pretexts; they provide for a deeper understanding of the full extent of his investigations, which were sometimes frantic, and are at the root of his art. The natural fluency of style would rely on an increasingly lucid submission to technical requirements, and on everything which enabled the work to develop and capture its richness.
At the height of the Symbolist movement, like Pierre Bonnard, with whom he shared a studio for a time, Vuillard remained faithful to ordinary interiors, without digressing into the strange or the unstable. A painter of intimate scenes, he returned to small subjects, so maligned at that time. His subjects are imbued with tension, with a strong sense of presence and mystery. Swiftly, he abandoned the prints which Degas and the Japanese (the simplicity of Japanese art and decoration was a strong influence in France at that time) had endorsed. He also turned his back on the Impressionists and Gauguin, for whom one of the essential aims of painting was to obtain the maximum effects of brilliance and luminosity. Vuillard’s penchant for less intense harmonies led him, conversely, to Franciscan virtues, to a kind of enrichment through poverty (towards the end of his life, he would change his attitude and ‘intensify’ his palette again). Practising a technique using distemper (a method of painting on plaster with powder colours mixed with size or other glue soluble in water), which he discovered when he was producing stage sets for Lugné-Poe, Vuillard explored the following effects: matt and granulated, the degree of opacity being the distinctive features of his art.
Very attracted by the theatre, Vuillard produced many lithographs for programmes and posters. He was also interested in the decorative arts, and painted panels, stained glass windows, and ceramics. Around 1893, he started producing ‘apartment frescoes’ for Mme Desmarais, for the Natanson brothers with variations on the theme of public gardens (1894, nine panels); also for Claude Anet, Dr Vaquez, Henri Bernstein, the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, and the Comédie des Champs-Élysées. Simultaneously, he cast his mother, who was his greatest supporter throughout his life, in portraits depicting ordinary domestic scenes. In 1899, he produced a book of lithographs Landscapes and Interiors ( Paysages et Intérieurs) for Ambroise Vollard.
From 1918, Vuillard’s style matured and he produced portraits of the Parisian upper middle class and interior scenes in a traditional vein; these works are more conventional and academic. There is so much serenity, charm, and harmony in Vuillard’s work; however, what it cost in effort, investigation, and anxiety is very often overlooked. But Vuillard’s extreme modesty ensured that these aspects remained hidden, as moreover was a complete collection of his work, only discovered when he died. Although he was very sociable, no one protected with greater sensitivity his solitude against the indiscretions and vanity of the era.
Vuillard exhibited at the Salon d’Automne in Paris in 1903; at the Salon de la Libre Esthétique, Brussels, in 1905. He exhibited in solo shows – during his lifetime a retrospective at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris, in 1938. Posthumously, solo exhibitions were devoted to him: 1968, the Orangerie des Tuileries in Paris with Ker-Xavier Roussel; 1971, the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto; 1971–1972, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor of San Francisco and the Art Institute of Chicago; 1983, the Graphisches Kabinett, Bremen; 1989, the Brooklyn Museum, New York; 1990, The Intimate Interiors of Édouard Vuillard ( Les Intérieurs Intimes de Vuillard) at the Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, and the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven; 1990–1991, a retrospective of his work was held at the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyons, at the Fundacio Caixa de Pensions, Barcelona, and the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nantes; 2003, a retrospective was held at the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Montreal, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, the Grand Palais in Paris, and the Royal Academy, London.
His work also appeared in exhibitions devoted to the Nabis group: from 1891–1896, Impressionist and Symbolist Painters ( Peintres Impressionistes et Symbolistes) at the Galerie Le Barc de Boutteville; 1897, 1898, the Galerie Ambroise Vollard; 1899, Post and Neo-Impressionists ( Post et Néo-Impressionistes) at the Galerie Durand-Ruel; 1900, 1902, the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune with Bonnard, Denis, and Félix Vallotton; 1934, Gauguin, His Friends, the École de Pont-Aven and the Académie Julian ( Gauguin, ses Amis, l’École de Pont-Aven et l’Académie Julian) at the Galerie des Beaux-Arts; 1943, the Galerie Parvillée; 1955, Bonnard, Vuillard and the Nabis ( Bonnard, Vuillard et les Nabis) at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville; 1966, La Revue Blanche at the Galerie Maeght; 1990, At the Time of the Nabis ( Au Temps des Nabis) at the Galerie Hubert Berès. His work was also featured in the provinces and abroad: 1951, the Kunsthalle, Bern; 1967, the Musée des Beaux-Arts d’Agen; 1983, the Wildenstein Gallery, New York; 1984, the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, and the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven; and 1985, the Musée Départemental du Prieuré, St-Germain-en-Laye.
Museum and Gallery Holdings
Albi (Mus. Toulouse-Lautrec): Portrait in Left Profile of Toulouse-Lautrec, Known as with Soft Felt-Hat (1897)
Amsterdam (Stedelijk Mus.): Oilskin Portrait of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Cooking (1898)
Berlin (National Mus.): Looking out of the Window (two works); Model
Brussels (MBA): Two Schoolchildren (1894, decorative panel for ‘Public Gardens’ for Alexandre Natanson)
Chicago (AI): Vuillard’s Bedroom at the Château de Clayes
Cleveland (MA): Under the Trees (1894, decorative panel for “Public Gardens” for Alexandre Natanson)
Cologne (Wallraf-Richartz Mus.): Woman at the Cupboard
Dijon (MBA): Millstone
Glasgow (AG and Mus.): Mother and Child
Grenoble (Mus. de Grenoble): Woman in Blue Blouse (1915)
Hamburg (Kunsthalle): View of the Binnenalster
Houston (MFA): Promenade (1894, decorative panel for “Public Gardens” for Alexandre Natanson)
Karlsruhe (Staatliche Kunsthalle): Misia at the Piano, Cipa Listening to It
Lausanne (Cantonal MFA): Portrait of Dr Widmer; Madame Vuillard Sewing
London (Courtauld Institute of Art): Interior with a Screen (1909–1910, oil/paper/cardboard)
London (Tate Collection): Girl in an Interior (c. 1910, oil/board); other paintings and works on paper
Lyons (MBA): Misia at Villeneuve-sur-Yonne (c. 1897, oil on wood)
Marseilles (Mus. Cantini): Tramway (1908, pastel, gouache, and glue on card)
Moscow (Pushkin MFA): Children in an Interior
New Haven (AG, Yale University): The Stitch; Kitchen (1892, oil on wood)
New York (Metropolitan MA): Self-portrait with Waroqui (1889); Mother and Sister of the Artist (1893); Figure Sitting in front of a Window
New York (MoMA): Mother and Sister of the Artist (1893); Embroiderers or the Tapestry
Northampton, MA (Smith College MA): Sewing Studio (1893)
Paris (BNF): Two Sister-in-Laws; Table with Large Lampshade; Across Fields; Landscapes and Interiors (engraving, Vollard Illustrated Book); Design for the Rideau des Arts; Children Playing (1897, lithograph); On the Pont de l’Europe (1898–1899, coloured lithograph); The Cook (1899, lithograph); Interior with Rose-patterned Wallpaper (1899, lithograph); The Pastry Shop (1899, lithograph)
Paris (Louvre, Drawings Collection): Reine Natanson
Paris (Mus. d’Orsay): Still-life with Salad (c. 1887); First Steps (1894); The Public Gardens (1894, five panels including ‘Little Girls Playing’, ‘Cross-Examination’, ‘Nursemaids’, ‘Conversation’, ‘Red Parasols’); Portrait of Félix Vallotton in His Studio (1900); Luncheon (c. 1903); Vase of Flowers (1904); Le Pouliguen, Cargo-boat by the Quay (c. 1908); Red Dining-room (c. 1908); Interior (c. 1910); Library (1911); Bouquet of Daffodils (1912); Portrait of Geneviève Bernheim de Villers (1920); Portrait of Madame Bénard (1930); Sacré Coeur, View of the Artist’s Apartment (1935); Water Tank at Les Clayes (1936); Portrait of Claude Bernheim de Villers; Portrait of Madame Vaquez; Portrait of Madame Suzanne Després; Portrait of Romain Coolus; After the Meal; Sleep; Self-portrait; In Bed; Portrait of Mme Jeanne Lanvin; Portrait of Monsieur Arthur Fontaine; The Public Gardens (six studies, drawing)
Paris (Mus. du Petit Palais): The Library (1896); Music (1896)
Richmond (Virginia MFA): The Golden Chair (1906, oil/panel)
Rochester (Memorial AG, Rochester University): Portrait of Lugné-Poé
São Paulo (MA): Dress with Foliage Pattern (oil on canvas)
St-Tropez (Mus. de l’Annonciade): Two Women under the Lamp (1892)
Strasbourg (Mus. d’Art Moderne et Contemporain): Around the Lamp (1910)
Washington, DC (NGA): Woman in a Striped Dress (1895, oil on canvas, decorative panel for Thadée Natanson); Place Vintimille (1911, distemper/paper/canvas, five-panel screen); The Visit (1931, mixed media/canvas)
Washington, DC (Phillips Collection): Newspaper (1895)
Winterthur (Kunstmus.): Women in an Interior (1893); Interior with Chiffonnier
Zurich (Kunsthaus): Large Interior with Six Figures (1897); Lucie Hessel’s (the Manicurist) Bedroom (c. 1907); Blue Hills