In Édouard Vuillard’s Yvonne Printemps au fauteuil, the famed French singer, actress and dancer is depicted in an intimate interior scene, seated in an ornately-patterned chair, clutching two roses in her hand as she stares out of the picture plane with a cool poise and self-assured elegance. Painted between 1919 and 1921, this portrait is one of three works from this time that depicts the theatre star in an opulent interior setting, most likely the home she shared with her husband, the playwright, director and actor, Sacha Guitry, who was also the first owner of this painting. As with many of Vuillard’s portraits from this final phase of his career, this work bursts with rich and ornate pattern; the sumptuous red Persian-patterned wallpaper and deep green armchair a reflection of the artist’s lifelong preoccupation with the decorative interior.
At the time Vuillard painted this portrait, Printemps (1894-1977) was recognised as one of Paris’s best-loved stars. Having begun her career on stage at the tender age of 12, she quickly became famed for her singing voice and charm. When she was 21, she was discovered by Sacha Guitry, who catapulted her to fame. In April 1919, they were married and together the pair became one of the best known couples in the entertainment world, appearing together in musicals and comedies, many of which Guitry wrote, in both Paris and London. Vuillard knew the couple well, and had seen them create and star together in a number of plays, including La Femme et l’Amant in 1919, and Je t’aime in 1920-1921. At this time, Vuillard was increasingly moving in the world of the grande bourgeoisie, mixing with bankers, fashion designers, theatre stars and socialites alike. He depicted many of these figures in his painting, capturing not only their likeness, but something of their character, picturing them in carefully composed interior scenes.
In May 1919, shortly after Printemps and Guitry were married, Vuillard recalled visiting them in their dressing room at the venerable Théâtre du Vaudeville in Paris: he recorded, “go to Vaudeville, Sacha and Yvonne Printemps’s dressing room, amazed by Y’s features up close...request for portraits” (Vuillard, Journal, III.4, in G. Cogeval, Édouard Vuillard, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., 2003, p. 377). Vuillard’s later diary entries suggest he struggled with the mode through which to portray Printemps—“hesitating between several Yvonne P projects”, he wrote in the middle of the month—and in the end, he painted three different portrayals of the great French beauty: Yvonne Printemps, as well as Yvonne Printemps dans le canapé-lit (Salomon and Cogeval, no. XI-182) and Yvonne Printemps et Sacha Guitry (Salomon and Cogeval, no. XI-184). The present work shows the clearest likeness of Printemps, capturing her distinctive features in a manner that suggests an implicit rapport between artist and sitter. As in the prior two portraits of Printemps, the star becomes one within the richly decorated setting, with Vuillard relishing the same attention to her physiognomy and presence as to the opulent interior in which she is seated. As the writer Romain Coolus described, “[Vuillard] directs a special beam onto the individual depicted; but that individual is for him just another object among all those that make up the life the individual belongs to. The subject is refracted in everything around him; his tastes and preferences are written in the furniture familiar to him and in all the details of the setting in which his life is spent” (ibid., p. 357).