The life and art of Édouard Vuillard
The rebellious co-founder of the avant-garde artists’ group Les Nabis was as happy to paint a theatre set as he was the lush domestic scenes for which he is best known. Illustrated with standout works offered at Christie’s
The friendships he made at school would last a lifetime
Born in 1868 in Cuiseaux, a sleepy commune in the Saône-et-Loire region of Bourgogne in eastern France, it was assumed that Jean-Édouard Vuillard would follow in his father’s footsteps and join the military. But when he was 10 years old his family moved to Paris, where his eyes were opened to the arts and academia. Awarded a scholarship to the prestigious Lycée Condorcet, Vuillard met Ker-Xavier Roussel and Maurice Denis, with whom he would become lifelong friends. He would eventually co-found the artists’ group Les Nabis — the brotherhood — together with these two artists and others including Paul Sérusier and Pierre Bonnard.
He kept a journal throughout his life — an invaluable document for art historians
Vuillard studied art at the Académie Julian, which he found creatively stifling, and then at the École des Beaux-Arts — having failed the entrance exam twice. In these early years he began keeping a daily journal, which he maintained until his death in 1940. The Institute de France in Paris is now home to 48 volumes from Vuillard’s diary, providing art historians with a wealth of information about Les Nabis.
Les Nabis at Stephane Natanson’s house in Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, south-east of Paris, c. 1898. Standing: Cipa (half-brother of Misia Natanson). Seated, from left: Felix Valloton, Édouard Vuillard, Stephane Natanson, Marthe Mellot, Thadée Natanson and Misia Natanson. Photo © Tallandier / Bridgeman Images
Gauguin was a profound inspiration
In his formative years Vuillard hopped from studio to studio, apprenticing alongside painters including Diogène Maillart and Pierre Bonnard. It was while working with Bonnard in 1890 that he helped to form Les Nabis. The artists who became part of this Post-Impressionist, avant-garde collective were inspired by the paintings of Paul Gauguin, who sought to balance — or synthesise — considerations of form, colour and emotion.
Les Nabis: the artistic movement with cultish overtones
Paul Sérusier’s 1888 painting The Aven River at the Bois d’Amour, executed under the guidance of Gauguin, became the ‘talisman’ of Les Nabis. The canvas used pure, unmixed colours to communicate the artist’s emotions and sensations rather than to transcribe the actual appearance of nature.
Members including Vuillard, Denis and Bonnard saw themselves as the prophets of a new art movement, objecting to the conservative curriculum at the Académie Julien. They compared themselves to the liberators of ancient Israel, wore beards and communicated in a secret language, referring to their studios as ergasterium (‘factory’ in Latin). Members of Les Nabis ended their letters with a cryptic signature: E.T.P.M.V. et M.P. (‘In your palm, my word and my thoughts’).
Vuillard’s self-portrait with cane and boater hat (above), captures his signature thick red beard and esoteric gaze.
Vuillard painted everything from theatre sets to Parisian cafés
Vuillard considered himself an artistic polymath at the forefront of contemporary art. He was delighted by the challenges posed by unconventional formats such as screens, theatre sets and programmes, and by materials such as distemper and board, on which he painted works such as Portrait de Jos Hessel (below). He also painted the interiors of wealthy clients’ houses, and chic Parisian cafés.
Vuillard was a keen photographer. After acquiring a Kodak camera in 1897, he became an assiduous documentarian of his life and surroundings: his vast trove of some 1,750 photographs served as a visual accompaniment to his daily journals. Images such as Ker-Xavier Roussel dancing nude, Rue Truffau provide a glimpse into the life of the Les Nabis brotherhood.
He was most at home in the home
In comparison to other members of Les Nabis, Vuillard’s paintings were more often focused on domestic scenes. Often described as ‘intimist’ because of their affectionate themes, his heightened palettes and rich textures — inspired by Symbolist and Impressionist artists — helped to pave the way for 20th-century abstraction.
Although financially successful in his lifetime, Vuillard lived until the age of 60 with his widowed mother, a dressmaker. Painted in 1890, Les couturières, above, is among the most important canvases from the period of Vuillard’s association with Les Nabis. It depicts Vuillard’s mother and his sister Marie at work in the corset- and dress-making atelier that Madame Vuillard ran in the family home. Madame Vuillard is the grey-haired figure in the foreground, shown cutting through a piece of red material while Marie holds the fabric taut.
With its radical pictorial and spatial experiments, Les couturières heralds many of the most important artistic developments of the early 20th century, including the Fauves’ bold apposition of colours, the juxtaposition of planes of the Cubists, and Expressionism’s distortion of forms.
The influence of his mother’s work can be seen in Vuillard’s art. His 1895 painting, La balayeuse, 346 rue Saint-Honoré (above), for example, is rich in pattern, grain and texture.
He shared a muse with Renoir and Bonnard…
Vuillard, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and Bonnard all shared the same muse: the brilliant pianist Misia Natanson. In Vuillard’s works, however, she often appears distracted. Paintings such as Misia et Vallotton à Villeneuve (below), and notes in his journal, hint at an infatuation with the young musician.
In Misia et Vallotton à Villeneuve, the painter Félix Vallotton can be seen behind Natanson and turned in the opposite direction. Vallotton also had a flirtatious relationship with the pianist. The third character in this intricately contrived drama is Misia’s husband Thadée, co-founder of the literary journal La Revue Blanche. Misia turns her back on Thadée as he converses with Vallotton, implying his diminished place in her emotional world; Vuillard, likewise, has reduced him almost to a non-presence, radically cropping the image so that only a sliver of his form remains visible.
…and a dealer with Cézanne and Picasso
Paris was the artistic crucible of Europe at the turn of the 20th century, and the man at the centre of the art business was Ambroise Vollard, an entrepreneurial dealer credited with providing critical support to the artists of Les Nabis. Vollard also helped to promote the work of Paul Cézanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Louis Valtat, Pablo Picasso, Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh, among others.
In Vuillard, Vollard recognised an emerging talent. In the 1890s he commissioned a set of lithographs from the artist, including the above work, L'Atelier (Roger-Marx 11) — paying 100 francs per image. The shrewd move provided Vollard with access to a newly minted bourgeois market and gave Vuillard the publicity he desired.
He reached his artistic zenith at the end of the 19th century
Most art historians now consider the 1890s Vuillard’s greatest decade. In these halcyon years, the artist found his footing alongside his contemporaries among Les Nabis, and produced some of his best-known masterpieces.
Among these are Woman in a Striped Dress (1895), now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.; Two Seamstresses in the Workroom (1893) in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art; and Fillettes se promenant (above), which sold for $7,993,000 at Christie’s in New York in 2008 — at the time a record price for the artist at auction.
He never wavered from his artistic beliefs
With time, the work of Les Nabis came to be regarded as conservative in comparison to Cubist, Expressionist and abstract styles. Undeterred, the group stuck to its credo. For his part, Vuillard maintained his painterly aesthetic until his death in June 1940, remaining steadfastly committed to his artistic beliefs.
Jos Hessel devant la T.S.F., rue de Naples (above), painted by Vuillard when he was in his 50s, highlights the artist’s lifelong dedication to domestic interior portraits.