PRINT December 1971

Four Short Essays on Vuillard


His mother was the acknowledged muse of Edouard Vuillard’s art. She occupies the same central place in her son’s work as Bonnard’s wife in his. The old woman potters around, cooks, and most often, sews; the younger one bathes, is perpetually au toilette. The vision of these two Nabi painters, friends throughout life, returns again and again to the domestic image of one woman, the ideal point of reference for their view of society—and more, too, the emotional focus of their humanity as artists. Bonnard shows her most typically in the tub, half levitated by the water and adrift in a phosphorous gas of shifting hues. Far from being a specific object of desire, the woman is the most recessed and ill-defined image in the composition. One is made to feel that her consciousness of her body has gotten past the skin and suffused the room, as if with some fabulous reverie of the senses. Everything floats evasively, so much so that it is never clear if the sexual euphoria of the scene is freely projected by the artist, or is a radiation he has empathized through his model. But there can be little doubt of his feminine identification. For her part, Madame Vuillard plays an equally important role, though the feeling with which she is conceived could not be more distant from Bonnard’s. Here is a little, old, black-garbed bourgeois lady, whose very presence in the household betokens order or, rather, tidiness. She incarnates a whole social class as Marthe de Meligny etherealizes sensuality itself. Vuillard is known as an “lntimist,” but there are hardly any nudes in his work, a fact all the more distinctive because it does not apply to any of his great peers. For all his pictorial candor, the artist portrays nothing that in real life would embarrass his subjects. This poet of manners concerns himself with the frailties and strengths of decorum, and it is fitting that these be epitomized by a maternal figure who sews, who makes and trims clothes. The profession of seamstress had a particular significance for Vuillard because it was by her needle the mother supported her children after their father died. And it is plausible to speak of his painting comportment in terms analogous to this sewing activity: Vuillard stitches, crochets, knits, embroiders, and laces pigment in patterns that are thatched shrewdly together, as if he were nest-building his art, much as his mother had preserved his home. His earliest feelings of security must have been associated with the sight of his mother working, and to their memory, in body as well as spirit, his art is a subtle homage. It was in her apartment that he lived—her kitchen, salon, and dining room he continually rendered; his own quarters, a monastic bedroom and cluttered studio, a mere adjunct to those accommodations, comprised for him a setting as inexhaustible as nature itself. Still, one does not think of this menage as the surrender of one personality to another, but rather as an equity between them, the deepest sharing of styles and values. Flaubert had said that he was Madame Bovary, and Vuillard, too, may have felt that way about his parent, save that he needed no excruciating effort of the imagination to transfer his sensibility, as did the novelist. In the.end, there was a harmony between the painter and his sitter that gender did not obstruct any more than age. Madame Vuillard appears as a grandmother almost from the beginning. But if this is so, the artist, by all accounts the sweetest and most loving of creatures, seems full born an elderly man. At twenty, a photograph shows him to have the mien of a man twice his age; at twenty-eight, he is already bald, bushily bearded, with heavy-rimmed, doleful eyes. How often did he tell Roger-Marx of his pleasure in growing old. The great events of the twentieth century rush by, marking him irrevocably as a personage of the nineteenth. By some instinctual process, he rapidly closed generations with his mother. Whatever the joys of hi’s youth, flawed by a religious crisis at fifteen, he never spoke of them, as if they had been a trial best forgotten. While his advancing age rejuvenated the art of Bonnard, getting older only confirmed Vuillard’s venerable spirit. Bonnard superimposes upon the bourgeois interior a dreamlike ecstasy whose muffled excitations translate it into an ageless pastoral. Vuillard, in contrast, settles or rather burrows into the bourgeois cavity as a stimulus that affirms those continual, small, half—lit virtues and comforts which fiction, if not painting, had been acute in recalling. Marthe was so excessively withdrawn and neurasthenic as to hobble open communication with Bonnard. Madame Vuillard, on the contrary, functioned as a kind of esthetic concierge, sociable, catalytic. The most amiable commerce existed between her and her son’s brilliant milieu. One wonders to what extent these conditions contributed to, or blended with, the gorgeous nuances of escapism in Bonnard, or the homely yet precious tact of Vuillard.


What does it mean to be a Symbolist artist of the 1890s, exposed to and sympathetic with the theory of a “higher reality” induced by purified form, and yet be devoid of mysticism and rebelliousness? And what happens if such an artist fixates on the bourgeois interior, with its barked lights, as his main subject? A so-called interior vision is in perfect accord with the antipositivist stance of the fin-de-siècle intellectuals—with their oblique, generalizing thought, if not their communitarian ethos. Vuillard externalized this vision, made it synonymous with the experience—at once metaphorical and literal—of being at home. By the nineties, such events as Degas’ evenings at the Halèvys’, or Mallarmé’s Tuesdays had supplanted such earlier habits of ideological exchange as the jamborees of the Café Guerbois or the sententious mots of the Magny dinners. There was greater intimacy among serious artists, if not less friction. It was on one of these latter-day occasions that Valéry reports having enviously complained to Degas:

You painters, you spend all day at your easels, but for a good part of the time, your work is organized, short-circuited between hand and eye, leaving your mind disengaged. Mixing your pastes and materials, you manufacture your shades, filling in and scratching out . . . and while your minds are free, Mischief is at work—picking and choosing weapons, arranging and sharpening up for the evening.

Vuillard does not give us so much as a glimpse of the Nabi monthly banquets, but there was Mischief in him that invoked those particular evenings during the workday. Even when he paints the outdoors, such as in his chalky renditions of the Paris parks, or with the raspberry and olive colors of the Picnic (Fig. 1), the light is never meant to convince as that of the sun. Mostly it seems “painted on,” degraded or bleached, as if awaiting the stage illumination of the theater that Vuillard loved so well, even to the extent of decorating sets for the productions of his friend Lugné-Poë. His outdoor scenes fascinate precisely because they seem to be only tacit mock-ups of the open air. His interiors, though far less clear, are more complete because lamps shed an arbitrary light, and produce authentic discolorations, to whose atmosphere he was peculiarly sensitive. Somewhere in his Journal, Jules Renard writes that night is the day gone blind. Vuillard was alive to those artifices that kept the blindness at bay. Depending on whether the artist proceeds from a dark ground or the bare high-keyed canvas, he tends to adopt one of two mutually contradictory views of matter as illuminated by light. The first is to conceive of an already given, populated world cast in darkness, lit dramatically and interruptively, that is to say, articulated so that various crucial surfaces emerge in high relief from concealment. The second is to assume that the painter’s marks themselves create the world out of the white void, constantly materialize appearances from scratch. With the one method, objects are potentially near, vaguely impinging it almost seems, in our own space; with the other, all location, fluid or crystalline, exists in a separate continuum of luminous energy. These schematic options are mingled when the artist confronts the problem of representing an interior made at least partially visible by natural light. That is one reason why painted additions to the stage require a special credibility. The way they contribute to theatrical light is obviously prepainted. They have no choice but to announce their presence as artificial, their existence as out of key with every concrete prop, though not necessarily with the conventions of acting itself. Vuillard particularly admired Corot and Rembrandt, whose improbably mixed influence shows in his work. Doubtless, too, he had seen Henri Rivière’s shadow plays at the Chat Noir and the puppet shows at his friend Paul. Ranson’s house. Their effect is blended into the many portrayals of scenes from plays where Vuillard reveals a particular delight in the strong or low contrasts which they afforded. He set himself the task of articulating bourgeois vignettes with eyes schooled by Japanese prints and Puvis de Chavannes. And this implied that the “hereness” of his images is achieved, not by volumes and therefore modeling, but by a frank adhesion of forms on the surface, where up-ended depths are explicitly fictional. When it does not come appreciably from an individual source, Vuillard’s light always seems to be drained matte by the woodwork and wallpaper, in whose patterns the fibrous, cursive contrasts are of the paint touches themselves. That so many of these patterns are floral, almost bursting with an incessant vegetable life, reintroduces natural allusion within the Vuillard interior in an unexpected way. It is as if organic growth had claimed all the available planes of the apartment for itself, turning them into opaque, magnified vistas of the fields. Thus Vuillard bestows—one would almost rather say emblemizes—landscape as part of the decor of apartments necessarily closed off from nature. In these cavernous zones, night and day, that which is near at hand compared with that present only in memory, coexist on their different levels of reality. The floraison motif recalls the Millefleurs tapestries which Vuillard had studied hard at the Musée Cluny, now fluffed slightly by way of the Impressionism he and Bonnard alone resurrected in advanced art of the nineties. And since Impressionism was the materializing art par excellence, we can see how Vuillard honors it as a powerful, yet inanimate recall of original perception illuminated by the dim but “actual” light of the bourgeois interior.

These hypotheses perhaps appear tenuous, for they may impose upon Vuillard’s form a symbolic burden it was never intended to bear. It is at least true that his dull dazzle functions in a related yet quite different and equally critical way. For his complex levels of over- and under-insistence (not focus) form a species of deliberate camouflage. Webster’s explains that word, in part, as “the disguising of an installation . . . with paint, garnished nets, or foliage to reduce its visibility or conceal its actual nature.” For Vuillard, of course, that which conceals is also a kind of revelation. His various screened, papered, or draped designs appear to adapt to each other and adjust their differing scales in a fusion that obscures the precise relatedness between backdrop and foreground, personage and furniture. Whole areas absorb depth as they work together for protective coloration. It is often just as difficult to tell which of them is “responding” to the other as it is to determine whether, in any single lntimist scene, we are dealing with people in rooms or rooms with people. Vuillard’s echoing and miming process is so complex that one senses an almost chameleonlike identification of figures with their spaces. And the result is a verging on some slight narrative possibility, without its ever being declared, an incipient abstraction that never quite effaces the genre instinct of the whole. The psychological opportunities here—under the optically dense, but physically porous, textures—are novel and constricted. In the charming little frieze Famille Au Jardin (Fig. 2), setting and diners are treated like so many notations on a musical score, which is a form of symbolism at once more specific and yet general than, say, Maurice Denis’ counterpointed arabesques. Preceded by Bonnard’s Petit Solfege Illustré, Vuillard indulged a whimsical, dappled spotting of figures, bouncy or floppy by turns, puppetlike patches on the unstressed treble of the tableau. These almost birdlike touches, with something of the pastoral about them, also reflect a style whose deformations go back to Vuillard’s theatrical caricatures of the actor Coquelin Cadet (Fig. 3), and are allied with the posters of Lautrec and the woodcuts of Felix Valloton. Their milieu was that of the important La Revue Blanche, the most liberal, that is to say, least party line periodical of the Parisian avant-garde. Founded by two brothers, Thadée and Alexandre Natanson, former schoolmates of Vuillard at the prestigious Lycée Condorcet, here was a review as interested in cultivating (rather more than promoting) the widest array of new painting, music, theater, poetry, and fiction as it was receptive to contributors of all social classes. The Natansons and their friends were neither bohemians nor Right Bank aristocrats of Tout Paris, but frankly comfortable, intensely curious esthetes and bon vivants for whom the production of serious ideas could coexist very easily within a haut-bourgeois context. Their affluence was sizeable enough to deflect them from the power-mongering of declassé coteries, yet not so grand as to keep them bottled up in the role of amateurs. They used money as an unemphatic but enlightened form of communication. Their outings and soirees had a familial character touched by a certain levity, neither cynical nor innocent. They lived their prime at a moment in the 1890s when the myths of humanism, and indeed the archetypes of middle class existence, were under the most intense fire from the artistic left. Because of their interest and participation in the controversial issues of their day, they were somewhat isolated from their own class, yet brought to bear some of its civilizing restraints and graces upon the extravagances of contemporary rhetoric. Vuillard, if it is not too pompous to say, which it certainly is, was their court painter. In this finely balanced, yet liquid society, he was said to have admired Thadée’s young and vivacious wife Misia, hostess for the whole set, who represented the principle of cosmopolitanism for him as his mother embodied that of domestic stability. La Revue Blanche bespoke an ambience at once open though private, relaxed though embattled. Vuillard represents these contradictions in the most elliptical way. This can be seen in his treatment of the human figure. With Degas and Lautrec, the heroism of that figure was already long gone in a process of psychic fragmentation, objectified in a panoply of awkward, fugitive, off-guard, face-losing or frumpish gestures. But however derisive they might at times have been, however much lacking in deference, the figure, for them, still had its integrity, and human beings persisted in their roles, jobs, and vices, dignified even though progressively exhausted and hassled. Vuillard, nominally a painter of people, did not register any of these strains at all, yet his view of the figure is even more modern and disenchanted because, although extremely observant, he does not show any confidence in the body as such. Not only has action come virtually to a standstill, but the figure is absorbed into the ground, no more than piquant fauna amidst the flora of the upholstery and decor, within an unreal space. But that space, for the time being, was home. Thadée Natanson was to speak much later of Vuillard’s hidden ardor. In the silences of his bourgeois interiors that ardor needed the presence of familiar objects, people, and sensations, congenitally close at hand, in order to offset the feeling of how far removed the rest of the world was from his own values. Vuillard, we feel, had a sense of impenetrable alien distance outside his own immediate periphery. Denis and Emile Bernard feH this way, too, and they res.ponded by fusing the figure, increasingly generalized and angelic, into the dawn of a neo-Catholic allegory. Vuillard, very possibly more religious, if not as pious (he considered himself a Jesuit, and therefore very mundane), made a comparable symbol of the living room, which was now only worldly by implication. Rooms require boundaries, for they are enclosures by definition. But although Vuillard’s little lntimist scenes are pictorially self-contained, they are not expressively delimited. All the tensions between articulation and materialization, theater and reality, the organic and the man-made, are infused and compressed into his fantasies of the bourgeois interior. For ten years (roughly 1890–1900), the affection with which he sustained that plaid and gingham fantasy was really obstinate.


And then my thoughts, did they not form a similar sort of hiding-hole, in the depths of which I felt that I could bury myself and remain invisible even when I was looking at what went on outside? When I saw any external object, my consciousness that I was seeing it would remain between me and it, enclosing it in a slender, incorporeal outline which prevented me from ever coming directly in contact with the material form ; for it would volatilize itself in some way before I could touch it. . . .

Proust is speaking about the mind’s imaging of objects when one reads. And, in an important sense, there is a special act of reading embedded in the process of looking at Vuillard’s paintings. They contain masses and zones that seem to have volatilized the appearances to which they allude, short-circuiting natural bulk and weight, so that while they still inform us about the way we perceive, their sensory life seems enveloped in an intervening consciousness, rather than conjured from direct stimuli. Although Vuillard scrutinized visual data with great particularity, the identity of the things he paints often has to look out for itself, because his execution operates on a level in which his marks adjust to themselves more by his pictorial fancy than as equivalents of observed subjects. This intuitive system reveals itself very informally in the artist’s draftsmanship. An early charcoal self-portrait from Vuillard’s remarkable brief fling as a Synthetist (Fig. 4), shows him schematizing the flattened shadow areas of his face, making their planes into jagged, light-dark counterscarps and cavities bounded by induced, blunt lines. Only the beard, an amorphous volume, resists the structuring abetted by the bony map of the face. A later undated drawing of his brother-in-law, K. X. Roussel (Fig. 5), on the contrary, is all soft-graphite tremulousness, in which the strokes respond to the movement of the air as well as to the transparency of the shade. It is a study from life, among a thou sand such sketches, distinguished by their offhand, velvety nuances, the sudden pressures of the pencil that leave little clots of dark accent. He goes tentatively once or twice over the contours of things, but so porous is his line, and summary its definition, that it is mainly the effervescent, discontinuous, slightly jumbled rhythm of his glance that stays in the mind. In the first drawing he imposes a stern mental order on the material form ; with the second, he leaves off that form in a score of different places, through a sensuous delicacy which is all the more reliant on signs. With its casual writing, we’re less aware that the image is seen in a particular and arbitrary way, but in fact a great deal of information is synthesized by a whole, any of whose passages may look individually incoherent. Frequently, these studies were the only basis for Vuillard’s orchestrated mise-en-scènes, and their nebulosity, though somewhat retained in its crumbled gestures, was reconstituted now not by memory, but by virtue of the substance of paint, in stippled and mottled patches of color whose incompletions have an entirely different syntax. Fo-r Vuillard responds to shapes which precipitate out of his myriad contrasts and yet are put under stress by them. This sense of shape depends on color value contrasts rather than drawing. That is to say, his sense of form is partly Impressionist, but insofar as his contrasts aspire to isolate shapes, in their own right, it is anti-Impressionist as well. So there is a suspicion in Vuillard’s small paintings that objects and surroundings relate to each other through a willed indetermination which shows the artist’s hesitancy, but also reveals an acute understanding of his historical position, and establishes a precarious new sense of finish. In the Luncheon at Ville-neuve-sur-Yonne (Misia with her brother Cipa Godebski) (1897; Fig. 6), Vuillard’s conflicting drives embattle all motifs, and have decimated the images into various scored splotches. By scraping into them with the tip of the brush handle, the artist withdraws some of the weave of the material presence but achieves a kind of negative texture. And such curious negativity can be seen to have transferred itself to the ground, too, which (so frequently the case with Vuillard’s work of this period) is good brown cardboard. When he arranges landscape elements on such a support, as in Downhill View Towards a Garden (c. 1900; Fig. 7), the high-keyed off whites seem to detach themselves, or work against the grain of the cardboard. It is an intriguing disharmony that shrivels their zones of expansion, and repells the tendency of colors to link up. (One reason why his close-value painting is still so discrete.) We view an opencontoured but airless terrain, all conceivable reserves of light and atmosphere having been drained into the dark and absorbent board. Lautrec used carton as a warm, neutral mid-value which held his transparencies. Vuillard employs it as a “resist” that furrows the wayward chroma of his opaque sediments. Color like this had not been seen before. It is a bouquet of ochres, various vaguely warm and cool tints of green, whites, with a soupçon of faintest pink. One almost has the impression that these could be the “reverses” of what had been seen—in hue, let alone in perspective. Vuillard often compounds subtle discords—his transitions between colors either being too fine or coarse in context—as if in a graphic medium, as sometimes indeed in his color lithographs, they were slightly and deliberately off-register. Contrast and intensity are never where they are expected to be. For contiguous tones on the spectrum are frequently left out, and mismated hues produce implausible resonances. Gradually, though, the eye can accustom itself to this atmosphere, and the unusual scans of this bricolage fill out with a nettlesome refinement. Though certainly his taste is involved in these operations, they quite clearly have an emotional value for him, too. The portrait of Valloton (Fig. 8) is a very close modulated study of the most nuanced grays, punctuated by the brutal scarlet of the slippers, an analogue of the subject’s sullen expression. None of this could have come that easily to Vuillard, for his facility as an executant outstripped his far more slowly distilled judgment as a colorist. To make the creative process more challenging, he put himself under the duress of the difficult technique called painting à la colle: a distemper powder and glue medium used in scene painting, capable of very fresh effects even with much overworking, but so changing upward in value upon its quick drying, so swift to evaporate and thicken, that the painter’s powers of matching and remembering colors had to be as nimble as his hands. Nothing could have been less spontaneous than the bathing and cooking of the water-glue vehicle preliminary to the actual brushwork, nor the continual mixing adjustments that so often crust the pigment in these works. Without any of the “fat content” of oil, their brittle substance, fragile in its early craquelures, had gripped the surface, and then, the water having evaporated, only lightly held its place. Vuillard hands over his fuller saturations to his tertiaries, neutrals and whites (if that is conceivable), while taking them away from his primaries, generally with one or two exceptions in the latter, so that there is a resounding decorative accent that almost always rescues him from a tendency to elaborate understatement. Even so, to look upon these works is to imagine that time has worked upon them, that they seem peculiarly and becomingly faded, as if history left only judicious vestiges of what had been there. His nervous and dainty touches are arrested in a juiceless, calcified, matte surface. We react to them some instants before we discern, within their patter, all those armoires, cornices, and chaises lounges that made up his repertoire. They are given to us as if disposed on a darkened screen of his consciousness which interferes with the contact of “what went on outside.”


By no later than 1905, the coincidence of.hat Vuillard had to say with the agreement that it had never been said that way before, quite dissolved. During the long thirty-five years that remained to him, he was faced with the same problem confronting so many artists. who had outlived their historical moment within the mercurial flux of modern art: how to survive, manage, and produce in an indefinite span of diminishing hope and less feedback. Gone were the days, not only of Vuillard’s special view of Symbolism, but of his prefigurement of the Fauves, his anticipation of the floral interiors of Matisse, and of his affinity with the postwar Cubism of Braque. These were haunting promises in his art, whose fulfillment very few were in a position to judge because he never showed with a dealer after 1912, and scarcely exhibited in a salon. At the end of his life, friends talked him into becoming a member of the lnstitut, a move highly criticized, while his big retrospective in 1938 drew very mixed reactions. For those who knew his character, however, it was predictable that the man who set so many limits for himself should have retired from the egotistic brawls of twentieth-century avant-gardes. These were the arenas of the young and the brave. Already in 1905, Gide could say: “For all his success, I can sense in Vuillard the charm of anxiety and doubt.” This anxiety apparently required social appeasement which Vuillard found in the salon of Madame Lucie Hessel, of whom it would be less accurate to say that she entered his life than that she took it over. He was her “great man,” and his relation to her much resembled, though on a far quieter level, Anatole France’s to Madame de Caillavet. The new household into which he was drawn was very well-off, vulgarian, Jewish. The husband was one of the shrewdest sellers at Bernheim Jeune, the fashionable gallery now advised by Felix Fénéon, ex-secretary of La Revue Blanche, and before that, the most elegant and perceptive art critic in France. The wife was an affectionate and assertive socialite who devoted herself to making Vuillard comfortable in a world of bankers, affluent professionals, and politicians. Private commissions came his way, mostly portraits. “How to resist the friend,” writes Salomon, who knew him well, “the amateur who asks you to do a portrait of his wife! The painter consents and there he is during weeks and months before a being with whom it’s necessary to get acquainted, awake interest, gain confidence, submit to silence, or, which is often worse, conversation. . . .” The artist who refused to hire professional models was himself put to hire, and he discharged his obligations with a patience and rectitude that is truly lamentable. His interiors took on a retrograde dimension, their ornaments and settings became objects of status, the sitters themselves gotten up with vacant dignity. None of this can be said of his self-portraits though—one in particular (Fig. 9), showing him in a mirror framed by reproductions of the old masters, washing his hands, the light dissolving those hands, the only things in movement; while the head, with its indistinct, perhaps closed eyes, is thrown back, meditative. Here is an artisan working in a great tradition—Le Sueur, Botticelli—which he adores. Records of its high moments flank his mirror, much like the votives of an altar. The bald-headed bearded saint, lower left, resembles the artist in type, yet both are seen at a remove in which flatness and depth, depicted and real light, are equally exposed as illusion.

But Vuillard betrayed still more knowledge and sadness when he came to portray, about that same time of the early twenties, his old friend Misia, in The Black Cups (Fig. 10). It is an excessively worked, extremely bare, distemper painting, several years in the completion. Misia, now on her third husband, appears a plump, middle-aged woman, attended by her niece, and presiding at the waxed or glass-covered table of her dining room. Various bibelots, a lap dog, and “comfortable” furnishings complete the scene. But it could not be less comfortable in mood. The remoteness of the stiff expressionless figures, the weird emptiness of the space above them, and certain thonged or horned features of the bric-a-brac, convey an alien environment perhaps unique in Vuillard’s output. (The hostile distance between the couple in the early Married Life, Fig. 11, is amiable by comparison.) These figures, which seem to gather the darkness rather than be distinguished within it, are ceremonial on terms that would have been baffling even if they had not been friends of the artist. And the room serves to diminish them, whereas many comparably large interiors by Vuillard, with more prolix outfittings and appointments, usually confer a worldliness that is an extension of the sitters. Here, in that space which lifts one’s glance upward, is the origin of that anxious resonance, of which the word morbid is too gross and yet slight a description. It is an area inhabited only by gray brushstrokes, crusted and caked to such thickness that it had come to have a hidelike surface. The only textures comparable to this in all French art are Monet’s of the late Nympheas. Vuillard had been to Giverny several times in the twenties—a photo shows the two hoary men at the lily pond. These strokes in Misia’s salon have the aquatic complexity and broken nuances of Monet’s dreamworld. They lack only its light and color. They are the Nympheas in grisaille. It is as if the passage of a whole era is absorbed into the nothingness of their space.

Max Kozloff