Painted around 1890, the present self-portrait is an important work from the period of Vuillard's association with the Nabi circle, during which he produced the most challenging, sophisticated, and affirmatively modern work of his long career. The Nabi group, which took its name from a Hebrew word meaning prophet, was founded by a band of young artists--Maurice Denis, Paul Ranson, Pierre Bonnard, and Henri-Gabriel Ibels foremost among them--who objected to the conservative curriculum at the Académie Julian in Paris, where they were studying together. 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 painted under Paul Gauguin's tutelage. 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 (Guicheteau, no. 2). 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" ("L'influence de Paul Gauguin," 1903; quoted in H.B. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art, Berkeley, 1968, p. 101).
Vuillard met Denis and his compatriots at the Académie Julian in the fall of 1889 and began his most intense experimentation with Nabi theories the following year, which he described in his journal as "l'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 to the fall of 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).
The present self-portrait is almost exactly contemporaneous with this journal entry; according to Guy Cogeval, it was probably painted in the summer of 1890, when Vuillard was working in a studio in Montparnasse that had been lent to him by a fellow Nabi painter, Paul Ranson. The painting shows Vuillard turned in three-quarter profile to the left, with his eyes cocked back to look directly at the viewer. The colors are bold and provocative: pink for the flesh, ginger for the beard, lemon-yellow for the hair, a spot of vermillion for the inside of the ear. The face is divided into two zones, dark on the left and light on the right, with the frontier abruptly delineated by a jagged contour that runs from the crown of the head down through the beard. Elizabeth Easton has described the present painting and a closely related self-portrait (Salomon and Cogeval, vol. I, no. II-25, on which see below) as "extraordinarily compelling works of Vuillard's Nabi style," and has declared, "In these paintings Vuillard reached the pinnacle of his Nabi achievement. Vuillard's face is composed of flat planes of solid color, as Maurice Denis prescribed, and these abstract, sinuous shapes represent in the brilliance of their colors the freedom of imagination that Sérusier encouraged his Nabi friends to explore" (op. cit., p. 20). Stuart Preston, likewise, has written about the present canvas, "This vivid, hallucinatory self-portrait... [carries] out, boldly and simply, Gauguin's advice about eliminating superfluous detail, and employing pure expressive color in boldly outlined areas, decorative and arbitrary schemes with no more than perfunctory reference to visual fact" (op. cit., p. 72).
The present painting is one of three closely related self-portraits, all of which have the same distinctive, undulating shadow across the face. It was probably the second in the series to be painted. The first (S. and C., vol. I, no. II-23) uses a more traditional, unified palette of browns and golds and depicts the artist at a slightly greater distance. In the present canvas, Vuillard increased the chromatic intensity and the flamboyance of the color contrasts, as well as framing the face more tightly to heighten the potency of the image. For the third version (S. and C., vol. I, no. II-25; fig. 1), painted on an octagonal canvas, he replaced the auburn of the beard with a more strident orange and added a shower of complementary red dots across the green-brown background. He also adjusted the transition around the ear, joining the hair and beard in the form of a sideburn that completely encircles the face. Cogeval has written about the present Autoportrait, "This was something of a dress-rehearsal for Octagonal Self-Portrait, as the last minor adjustments are made before the explosion of pure Synthetist provocation. All the elements found in the following entry are present against a background composed of violent, criss-cross strokes. And we can already see, bursting through the picture, that disturbing invention: a collage of lemon-yellow hair and orange beard" (op. cit., 2003, p. 89).
The genre of self-portraiture held a powerful appeal for the youthful Vuillard. Between 1887 and 1889, he painted no fewer than a dozen self-portraits (S. and C., vol. I, nos. I-76 through I-86, II-1), as well as a large double portrait of himself and his friend Waroquy (S. and C., vol. I, no. I-97; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Executed before Vuillard had adopted the unfettered color and bold, interlocking shapes of the Nabi, these early self-portraits are characterized by a muted palette and naturalistic approach to form. The contrast with the present canvas, painted just a year or two later, is striking. John Russell (who dates our painting to 1891) has declared, "Fourteen years before the revelation of Fauve painting at the 1905 Salon d'Automne, Vuillard had dared all. If it is true that Madame Matisse, when she was posing for the Woman with Hat of 1905, wore a black dress and a black hat against a plain white wall, only to be transmogrified in total defiance of naturalism, the feat was no more remarkable than that accomplished by Vuillard when he moved from the Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat [circa 1888; S. and C., vol. I, no. I-83] to the self-portraits of 1891" (exh. cat., op. cit., Toronto, 1971, p. 22).
The present self-portrait also reveals a new self-confidence in comparison to the earlier images. Vuillard's expression in the pre-Nabi works is dreamy and introspective; in several, he depicts himself in a mirror, a distancing device that contributes a sense of artifice and calculation to the image. The 1890-1891 self-portraits, in contrast, are vibrantly direct. The monochrome background, harsh light, and tight framing (elements borrowed from Italian Renaissance portraits that Vuillard had admired in the Louvre) thrust the face into the foreground; the artist locks eyes with the viewer, his gaze bold and unflinching. Cogeval has written, "The silent, half-turned torso not only reveals a growth in self-confidence when compared with the earlier portraits, but works in tandem with the provocatively full colors: the yellow hair, pink skin, orange beard and blue neck, like carefully calculated pieces in a hallucinogenic jigsaw puzzle. As always, though, the boldness is tempered by the melancholy gaze of the eyes lost in shadow, the shadow that renders a map of doubt, breaking up the forehead and laying bare the inmost contradictions of the artist. Amongst comparable works from the same period, only Gauguin's Self-Portrait with Yellow Christ [Wildenstein, no. 324; fig. 2] and the Self-Portrait painted by Van Gogh at Saint-Rémy [de la Faille no. 627; Musée d'Orsay, Paris] achieve a similar intensity--religious and Syncretist in the one, expressionist and fraught with anxiety in the other" (op. cit., 2003, p. 91). Although Vuillard had probably not seen Gauguin's celebrated self-portrait from 1889 at the time that he painted his own, he would eventually come to know it well. Maurice Denis, the painter and Nabi theoretician, bought the picture in 1903 and kept it all his life; a painting by Vuillard shows it shortly after its purchase, in situ on the wall of the Denis dining room (S. and C., II, VII-399; Musée d'Orsay).
If the sources for the present self-portrait are rich and varied (Italian Renaissance portraiture, Japanese prints, the art of Sérusier and Gauguin), its resonance in the art of the twentieth century is even more striking. The blunt separation of the face into contrasting zones of color paves the way for Matisse's iconic Fauve portrait of his wife, La raie verte (fig. 3), while the provocative treatment of color anticipates the bold, palette and silk-screen techniques of Pop portraits such as Warhol's Orange Marilyn. Indeed, the radical pictorial and spatial experiments of Vuillard's Nabi work may be seen to herald many of the most important artistic developments of the modern era. Claire Frèches-Thory has concluded, "The bold opposition 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" (The Nabis: Bonnard, Vuillard, and their Circle, New York, 1990, p. 27).
(fig. 1) Edouard Vuillard, Autoportrait, 1890. Private collection, France.
(fig. 2) Paul Gauguin, Autoportrait au Christ jaune, 1889. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
(fig. 3) Henri Matisse, Portrait de Madame Matisse (La raie verte), 1905. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen.