Fillettes se promenant is one of the masterpieces of Edouard Vuillard's oeuvre, and an iconic image of Post-Impressionist painting. Long part of the canon of Nabi art, this painting combines the decorative qualities that were most esteemed in the 1890s with the bright colors and abstract forms that look forward to the abstraction of Matisse. Though Vuillard is known for his small paintings of interiors and decorative ensembles, Fillettes se promenant is rare in his oeuvre for its mastery of color and form and for its scale. Works of this synergy of subject and form seldom come on the market, and remain iconic images not just for the artist but also for the post-Impressionist aesthetic.
Vuillard painted the present work around 1891; it was during this period, in a career that lasted more than sixty years, that he produced his most forward-looking and sophisticated work. Vuillard had recently affiliated himself with the band of young painters who called themselves Nabis, a name they took from the Hebrew word meaning prophet. The group included Paul Sérusier, Maurice Denis, Paul Ranson, Pierre Bonnard, and Henri-Gabriel Ibels among others, who had studied together at the Académie Julian in Paris and had objected to its conservative curriculum. Denis, the most vocal proponent of Nabi ideas, dated the inception of the movement to the summer of 1888, when Paul Sérusier brought back from Pont-Aven a small landscape he had painted under Gauguin's tutelage (fig. 1). It was rendered in pure, unmixed colors that do not transcribe natural appearances, but rather suggest the painter's emotions and sensations before nature. The Nabis called this magically auspicious painting Le talisman. As Denis explained, "Thus was introduced to us for the first time, in a paradoxical and unforgettable form, the fertile concept of a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order. Thus we learned that every work of art was a transposition...a passionate equivalent of a sensation received" (from "L'influence de Paul Gauguin," 1903; quoted in H.B. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art, Berkeley, 1968, p. 101). Vuillard joined Denis and his compatriots in the fall of 1889 and began his most intense experimentation with Nabi theories the following year, which he described in his journal as the "année de Sérusier" (quoted in G. Groom, Edouard Vuillard, Painter-Decorator: Patrons and Projects, 1892-1912, New Haven, 1993, p. 9). In a journal entry dated October 1890, he avidly proclaimed his adherence to the new movement:
"What I should really be concerned with: the consolidation of an idea as a work of art, of which the existence would be the product of an idea (sensation and methodology)...Let's be clear: I must imagine the lines and colors I apply and do nothing haphazardly; that's perfectly true. I must think about all my combinations. But even to attempt this work I must have a methodology in which I have faith" (quoted in ibid., p. 9).
Painted just a few months after Vuillard wrote this statement, the present canvas has been described as "an example of his Nabi style at its purest" (in exh. cat., op. cit., Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1975, p. 230). It depicts two young girls with their arms around each other, walking along a curving garden path surrounded by deep foliage. The girl on the left is clad in a brown and black striped dress, the girl on the right in a navy dress with blue bean-shaped motifs; both wear striped stockings, black boots, and long braids. They are viewed from behind; their profiles are averted in an attitude of feminine modesty, and their carriage is that of slightly awkward adolescents. Despite its startling simplicity, the figures express a highly characterized individuality that conveys the intimisme that marked out the greatest of Vuillard's, and of the Nabis', works, resulting in a profoundly personal and lyrical work infused with a sense of visual rhythm. Stuart Preston has written about this painting, "Here we observe a bold simplification of forms, contrasting areas of flat color used for a decorative effect with little representational function, and a strong rhythmical surface design...[Yet] whereas this painting may fully demonstrate Nabi theory, it conveys, too, hints of the mysterious poetic meaning in everyday life--the Symbolist 'air of things,' nonspecific in feeling, not overtly sentimental but emanating sympathies with things known and cherished" (in ibid., p. 230). Likewise, Antoine Salomon and Guy Cogeval have declared, "The stiffness of the attitudes, the insistent candor of the color motifs, the stylized foliage reminiscent of a theater décor or the ochre-colored path beneath the young girls' feet: everything in this magnificent composition suggests that Vuillard set out to compose a deliberately experimental work spiced with a gentle touch of humor" (in op. cit., p. 371). Even Vuillard's contemporaries recognized the success of the composition; when a small oil sketch for the painting was exhibited in 1893 at the Barc de Bouteville gallery in Paris, Thadée Natanson, a vocal champion of the Nabis, wrote in his avant-garde periodical, La Revue Blanche, "How attractive Monsieur Vuillard's two little girls are; he cannot continue to refuse his presence at exhibitions much longer, for one would be tempted to tax him with affectation - were one not so confident of the sincerity of his reserve" (quoted in ibid., p. 370).
The painting is part of a group of park scenes that Vuillard produced in 1891, many of which feature young women and children. These canvases represent the artist's earliest venture in the world of Paris's public gardens, which would become one of his most important subjects. In 1892, the year after he painted the present work, Vuillard selected the theme of the jardin public for two of the six panels that he made to ornament the salon of the wealthy industrialist Paul Desmarais, the very first commission of his entire career (Salomon and Cogeval, nos. V-28.5 and V-28.6; Private Collection). He returned to the theme two years later for his next great decorative ensemble, a celebrated cycle of nine paintings for Alexandre Natanson's fashionable town-house in the avenue du Bois de Boulogne (Salomon and Cogeval, nos. V-39; Musée d'Orsay, Paris). Salomon and Cogeval have described Vuillard as "the definitive rhapsodist of the Paris parks," explaining, "Thanks to the parks Vuillard is forever the poet of green spaces. He brought to life a kind of wonderland, a hortus deliciarum for modern times, and his exclusive sovereignty over it was undeniable. Since adolescence he had walked through the Tuileriesbut he also went to other parks and gardens to watch the crowds that thronged there: the Bois de Boulogne, the Square de la Trinité, the garden at Batignolles, and the Place Vintimille...It is easy to imagine him sitting for hourswatching the movement of the leaves, the patches of sunlight between the trees, the slow decline of daylight in the course of those lovely summer days, light that changed all the color values and flooded the fagades of apartment buildings with pink" (in op. cit. , p. 357).
Cogeval has proposed that the present canvas was painted in the place Vintimille, a small, oval-shaped park on the right bank, sandwiched between the rue de Bruxelles and the rue de Douai (in exh. cat., op. cit., Washington, D.C., 2003, p. 86). Dotted with benches, trees, and lamp posts and bounded by a low fence and a wide sidewalk, the place Vintimille was less than five minutes walk from the studio at 28, rue Pigalle that Vuillard shared during this period with Pierre Bonnard and Aurélien Lugné-Poe. Cogeval's identification is based on the distinctive patterning in the upper left corner of the present painting, which appears to represent a railing through which a pale yellow building may be glimpsed. The same fence appears in another park scene that Vuillard painted in 1891, in which enough of the building fagade is visible to identify it as that of 10, place Vintimille (Salomon and Cogeval, no. V-6; fig. 2).
Although these two paintings are Vuillard's earliest known depictions of the place Vintimille, they are far from his last. Indeed, the artist's name has become intimately associated with that of the small park. Paul Morand wrote in 1943, "I cannot pass the place Vintimille...under these chestnut trees that Vuillard so often painted, from the height of his family apartment at the corner of the rue de Calais, without thinking that I am there at a crossroads of time, at a turning point of Parisian sensibility and French art" (quoted in G. Groom, op. cit., p. 240, note 64). From 1908 until his death in 1940, Vuillard lived directly over the park, first at 26, rue de Calais and then at 6, place Vintimille. He depicted the bustling public square repeatedly throughout this period, in numerous drawings and pastels and at least three large-scale decorative projects. The latter group includes a triptych of narrow, vertical panels commissioned by the playwright Henry Bernstein in 1909-1910 for his apartment on the boulevard Haussmann (Salomon and Cogeval, no. VII-516; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, and Private Collection); a five-panel folding screen painted in 1911 for the American singer Marguerite Chapin (Salomon and Cogeval, no. IX-165; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.); and a large, horizontal canvas commissioned by Emile Lévy in 1915, although ultimately sold to Marcel Kapferer instead (Salomon and Cogeval, no. X-102; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
The young girls strolling in the place Vintimille in the present painting have been identified as a pair of apprentices that Vuillard's mother employed in the corset- and dress-making studio that she ran in the family home at 346, rue Saint-Honoré (in A. Salomon and G. Cogeval, op. cit., p. 370). The same girls, part of Vuillard's "extended family," appear as well in two interior scenes that the artist painted in 1891-1892: The Apprentices and The Drawer (Salomon and Cogeval, nos. IV-9 and IV-55; Private Collections). Cogeval has suggested that one of the apprentices is also depicted in Le baiser of 1891, a small oil painting that shows the artist embracing a young girl (Salomon and Cogeval, no. II-21; fig. 3). The object of Vuillard's affection in this painting has traditionally been identified as his older sister, Marie. However, Marie was the same height as Vuillard, whereas the girl in Le baiser is slighter and frailer; additionally, photographs indicate that Marie typically wore her hair coiled on top of her head, not in a single long braid.
It is not surprising that Vuillard would have turned to his mother's young apprentices as a source of pictorial material. Madame Vuillard's atelier dictated the daily routine of the Vuillard household for a full two decades, beginning in 1878 when the future painter was just eleven years old. The activities of the seamstresses provided Vuillard with a ceaseless fount of artistic inspiration during the early years of his career. Along with the scenes of public parks discussed above, the decorative ensemble executed for Paul Desmarais in 1892 includes two paintings of dressmakers in their workshop (Salomon and Cogeval, nos. V-28.1 and V-28.2; Private Collections). Paintings and drawings on the same theme dominated two of Vuillard's most important early exhibitions, at the gallery of the Revue Blanche offices in late 1891 and at the Barc de Bouteville gallery the following spring. Although the present painting shows the young seamstresses at rest, not at work, it shares with the dressmaking scenes an emphasis on the decorative qualities of cloth and clothing (e.g. fig. 4). The bold, flat patterning of the two girls' dresses provides the focal point of the composition, standing out in sharp relief against the abstract ground of richly hued foliage. Elizabeth Easton has written:
"Pattern is the unifying visual characteristic of these compositions, as might befit a body of work that has as its subject the working of cloth... Similarly, figures themselves--as flat, dark, and solid silhouettes--become decorative motifs in the paintings. It is the ensemble of the composition rather than its parts that constitutes it as decorative, harmonious, and intimate, thus...answering Mallarmé's cry for a work of art that evokes a mood and a mystery rather than merely naming reality. These pictures also serve as metaphors for Vuillard's concept of himself as a painter. In depicting women conjoined with their surroundings much like the patterns of the objects they sew, Vuillard in some way reflects the union between the artist and the work he creates" (in The Intimate Interiors of Edouard Vuillard, exh. cat., Brooklyn Museum, New York, 1990, p. 55).
Madame Vuillard's atelier may have provided a source of inspiration for another Nabi painter as well: Vuillard's close friend Ker-Xavier Roussel, the husband of his sister Marie and the first owner of the present painting. Roussel's work from the early 1890s indeed bears striking affinities with that of Vuillard. In Seasons of Life from 1892-1893, for instance, the contrast between the colorful, patterned dresses of the female protagonists and the dark, abstract landscape that surrounds them reflects the same pictorial interests as the present canvas (fig. 5). Gloria Groom has suggested that Seasons of Life, completed the year that Roussel married Marie, may reflect the painter's experiences in the Vuillard household: "There is no reason to doubt that Roussel was also familiar with Madame Vuillard's sewing workshop, with its infinite varieties of patterns and fabrics, and continual female interaction" (in Beyond the Easel: Decorative Painting by Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis, and Roussel, 1890-1930, exh. cat., Art Institute of Chicago, 2001, p. 110).
Vuillard's use of pattern as a means of structuring his compositions also provides a noteworthy precedent for the art of Henri Matisse, who arrived in Paris the very same year that Vuillard painted the present canvas. Like Vuillard, Matisse had textiles in his blood. Raised in the industrial heartland of northeastern France, in a town noted for its production of luxury silks, Matisse grew up surrounded by weavers' and embroiderers' workshops. Throughout his life, he ceaselessly amassed fabrics, embroideries, wall-hangings, curtains, and carpets. He referred to this collection as "my working library" and "my own little museum of swatches" and took examples with him whenever he traveled (quoted in exh. cat., Matisse, His Art and His Textiles: The Fabric of Dreams, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 2004, pp. 16 and 21).
Particularly during the late 1930s and early 1940s, Matisse drew repeatedly on his costume collection to order and compose his paintings. Certain garments appear over and over in his work from this period: a great blue ball gown with white organdie ruffles (see Lot 6, fig. 12), for instance, and a skinny Algerian robe with brilliant purple stripes (fig. 6). The bold, flat patterns of these textiles assert the abstract, inherently planar character of the pictorial composition, just as the two girls' dresses do in Vuillard's Fillettes se promenant. Jack Flam's description of Matisse's increasingly decorative surfaces may well apply to the work produced by Vuillard decades earlier, "When looking at [Matisse's] paintings of the late 1930s and 1940s, the viewer is simultaneously asked to accept the objects for what they are--a woman, a table, a vase of flowers, perhaps some fruit, and yards of vividly patterned cloth--and at the same time to understand that, taken together, these things also suggest another kind of reality and signify another kind of space...Within this context, decorative motifs mediate between the representation of the object as a real thing and the representation of the object as part of an ensemble of forms that exists in a world apart, and which seems to follow its own rules--rules determined in large measure by the ways in which pictorial energies are guided and modulated by the pulse of decorative patterns" (in ibid., p. 44).
Matisse is not the only modern master whose work is presaged by Vuillard's Nabi production. With their radical pictorial and spatial experiments, their sophisticated play between three-dimensional form and flattened surface, paintings like the present one indeed herald many of the most important artistic developments of the early twentieth century. Claire Frèches-Thory has written, "The bold apposition of violent colors announces the Fauves; the juxtaposition of planes, seen from different angles, prefigures the geometric constructions of the Cubists; the forms are sometimes distorted to the point of being virtually Expressionist; details take on the force of emblems and blazons branded onto the surface of the painting...like a sort of collage. [The Nabis'] numerous inventions, discoveries, reflections and premonitions were extraordinary when we evaluate them in the context of the 1890s" (C. Frèches-Thory, The Nabis: Bonnard, Vuillard, and their Circle, New York, 1990, p. 27).
(fig. 1) Paul Sérusier, Le talisman, 1888. Private Collection. BARCODE 26016283
(fig. 2) Edouard Vuillard, Little Girl in Front of Railings, 1891. Muzeum Narodowe, Warsaw. BARCODE 26016245
(fig. 3) Edouard Vuillard, Le baiser, circa 1891. Philadelphia Museum of Art. BARCODE 26016252
(fig. 4) Edouard Vuillard, La robe à ramages, 1891. Museu de Arte de São Paulo. BARCODE 26016269
(fig. 5) Ker-Xavier Roussel, Seasons of Life, 1892-1893. Private Collection. BARCODE 26016276
(fig. 6) Henri Matisse, La robe violette, aux renoncules, 1937. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. BARCODE 26016238