Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses

Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses

A fresh view of more than 50 works by the avant-garde French artist, on view through September 23

Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940 (photo credit: The Jewish Museum, publicity)
Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940 (photo credit: The Jewish Museum, publicity)

This exhibition offers a fresh view of the French artist Edouard Vuillard’s career, from the vanguard 1890s to the urbane domesticity of the lesser-known late portraits. The presentation focuses on the inspiration provided by friends and patrons whose support became inseparable from the artist’s achievement. Featuring some fifty key artworks in various media, the exhibition extends pioneering past projects of The Jewish Museum, New York, on the significance of collectors and patrons for the development of modern art.

The exhibit considers six aspects of the artist’s creation:

Vuillard’s Artistic Beginnings: Son, Artist, Prophet
As a young man in the 1890s, Vuillard was a member of a Parisian group of avant-garde artists known as the Nabis (“prophets” in Hebrew and Arabic). Taking their inspiration from the Post-Impressionist Paul Gauguin, the group used simplified form and pure colors to create decorative, emotionally charged pictures. During his Nabi period, Vuillard produced some of his best-known artworks: paintings of friends and family in warm interiors filled with patterned wallpapers, draperies, carpets, and clothing. Vuillard’s close involvement with modern experimental theater brought him into contact with major figures of Parisian cultural life and sparked his interest in painting mural-size scenes.

The Muse and the Review
Vuillard was drawn to the important cultural review published by the Natanson family, La Revue Blanche. The artist’s connection with Thadée Natanson vaulted Vuillard to success during the 1890s. From a family of bankers, Thadée and his gifted wife, Misia, were the prime movers who brought together the cream of Parisian intellectuals—avant-garde artists, writers, theatrical impresarios, politicians, and philosophers of the period. Vuillardʹs graphics appeared in the journal, together with those of his fellow artists—Pierre Bonnard, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Félix Vallotton, and others.

New Patrons
In the early years of the twentieth century, Vuillard began to exhibit at the prestigious Bernheim-Jeune gallery. Bernheim-Jeune was a center of the modern movement in painting and represented such leading artists as Bonnard, Matisse, and Renoir. Vuillard’s art continued to focus on interiors with figures, in which his artistic friends and circle of patrons are set within their domestic environment. He famously remarked, “I don’t do portraits. I paint people in their surroundings.”

The portentous friendship with Jos Hessel, senior partner of Bernheim-Jeune, and his wife, Lucy, became of central importance for Vuillardʹs creative life. Supporter, confidante, and lover, Lucy Hessel became the artist’s most frequent model—appearing in many of the artistʹs paintings, works on paper, and photographs over a period of forty years.

Decorative Murals
In addition to becoming the bespoke portraitist of interwar Paris, Vuillard continued to explore large-scale scenes and groups of scenes—landscapes and cityscapes as well as interiors. His art developed in response to commissions from influential clients. In the big decorative projects, the artist elaborated on the themes of Paris and country life: examples in the exhibition include The Album (1895, commissioned by Thadée Natanson), Place Vintimille (1908), and Le Grand Teddy (1918), a rarely seen painting commissioned for a Paris café.

Later Portraits
In the latter decades of his career, the milieu of the Hessels provided inspiration and commissions for portraits. Vuillard’s depictions of French society in the twenties and thirties show a continuing fascination with pattern and decoration and an ever more sophisticated exploration of the interior life of the sitter. Vuillard in these years showed himself to be one of the masters of the modern portrait.

The Chateau des Clayes
During the 1930s, Vuillard spent much of his time at the Château des Clayes, the country house of the Hessel family outside Paris, near Versailles. The Hessel estate offered the setting for new artistic departures—palatial interiors, magnificent landscapes—in the master’s late style.

— Stephen Brown, Assistant Curator

About the artist:
The youngest of three children, Edouard Vuillard was born on November 11, 1868, in the town of Cuiseaux in eastern France. After the family moved to Paris Vuillard attended the prestigious Lycée Condorcet, where the painters Maurice Denis and Ker-Xavier Roussel and the theater director Aurélien Lugné-Poë were among his classmates and friends. Following the death of his father in 1883, his mother maintained the family through work as a dressmaker and corsetière.

After the lycée, Vuillard studied painting at the famed Académie Julian along with Pierre Bonnard, Paul Sérusier, Roussel, and Denis. After several attempts, he was accepted to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1887. Sérusier, who was studying with Paul Gauguin, brought to Vuillard and his friends the older artist’s ideas about color, technique, and the use of symbolism and correspondences to convey meaning. With these ideas in mind, he, Vuillard, Bonnard, Roussel, Denis, and other friends established the Nabi group of painters.

In 1891 Vuillard met the three Natanson brothers, Thadée, Alfred, and Alexandre, who had founded the progressive arts magazine La Revue Blanche. Thadée was in charge of art criticism and invited Vuillard to show work in the magazine’s offices that fall—his first one-person exhibition. Over the next several years the Natansons and their circle commissioned important works from Vuillard. Thadée’s wife, Misia, became Vuillard’s particular muse and appears in numerous works of the period.

At this time Vuillard and his friends were also working in the avant-garde theater that was burgeoning in Paris. Together with Bonnard, Sérusier, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vuillard created set designs and costumes for a number of landmark theater productions, including the première of Alfred Jarry’s scandalous Ubu Roi, which caused riots. Meanwhile, he continued to paint, often taking his mother and sister, Marie, as models. Throughout these years, Vuillard, a bachelor, shared a home with them. His mother was a presiding spirit for him and for the Nabis, often cooking meals for the artists.

After the turn of the century, the Revue Blanche ceased publication and the Natanson milieu began to fragment. Vuillard found a new supporter in the art dealer Jos Hessel, who began representing him and many of the Nabi painters after 1900. He formed a close friendship with Jos and his wife, Lucy, who became his lover. The partnership of the Hessels with Vuillard, both professional and personal, was to last for the next forty years, until the artist’s death. They spent summers and holidays together, in the Hessels’ country homes and on trips abroad. After the end of World War I, Vuillard was a much sought-after portraitist; portraiture became the centerpiece of his life’s work between the wars. Chief among his subjects was Lucy Hessel, whom he painted innumerable times. With the German invasion of France, Vuillard fled Paris with the Hessels. He died in La Baule, Brittany, in June 1940.