This intimate interior scene, with its subtle characterizations and carefully-observed details, depicts the haute-bourgeoisie subjects that characterize the work of Vuillard's maturity. John Russell has noted that "in an unsystematic way he assembled as complete a record as any have of the way well-to-do people looked and behaved in the France of the Third Republic" (Edouard Vuillard, exh. cat., The Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, 1971, p. 69).
Belinda Thompson notes: "In Vuillard's portraits and group portraits from 1909-1910 onwards, his attention to details of dress and setting reveals as much about the way his sitters lived as his attention to physiognomy reveals about their character. Just as the dramatis personae in A la recherche du temps perdu appear and reappear, evolving over a protracted time-span, so in Vuillard's paintings the same models are featured again and again...memories are evoked as one era succeeds another" (Vuillard, New York, 1988, p. 110). Their naturalistic poses underscore the sense of intimisme which had long been central to Vuillard's oeuvre. As he said of his painting: "I do not make portraits, I make people at home" (quoted in J. Warnod, Vuillard, New York, 1989, p. 47).
The present work was painted at Les Pavillons, in Cricqueboeuf, Normandy, a villa where Vuillard stayed from July to September 13th 1910 with his family. Vuillard has most likely depicted in this scene his primary social circle in the years just before the First World War. While the figures seated around the table have not been directly identified, it is easy to assume that among those present might be Lucy Hessel, the wife of Jos Hessel, Vuillard's dealer at Galerie Bernheim-Jeune. Jos was a persistent philanderer and Lucy was drawn to Vuillard's quietly compassionate nature; they later became lovers. Marcelle Aron, Lucy's cousin and constant companion would likely have traveled to this retreat. During this time she was having an affair with the playwright Tristan Bernard, who could be represented by the bearded gentleman seated on the left side of the painting; they later married. The party may have also been joined by Thadée and Misia Natanson, leading lights of the avant-garde in fin-de-siècle Paris. Thadée was an art critic and co-director of La Revue blanche, a cutting-edge journal and his young, gifted Polish wife Misia hosted one of the leading Parisian salons. Important advocates and patrons of the Nabi movement, they were instrumental in introducing Vuillard to other collectors in their fashionable social circle.
In La nappe à carreaux, Vuillard retained many characteristics of his Nabi production: the circular arrangement of the sitters around the distinctive checkered tablecloth gives the viewer's eye a sense of of a dynamic circular motion anchored around the bright red and white grid on the table. The sense of patterning is further enhanced in the colorful dress of those seated at the table as well as the design in the wallpaper and objects displayed on the table.
This scene betokens Vuillard's love of the theater, for in this simple gathering of friends he might visualize a drawing room drama. The room has in effect become a stage set, and the conversation, no doubt witty and engaging, but hidden beneath the surface of proper upper class appearances lay a web of real but unspoken feelings and romantic attachments.
(fig. 1) Photograph of Edouard Vuillard, Romain Coolus, Lucy Hessel, Marcelle Aron, Tristan Bernard and Alfred Natanson in front of the villa Les Pavillons at Cricqueboeuf in Normandy.