Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940)
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Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940)

Les couturières

Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940)
Les couturières
stamped with the signature 'E Vuillard' (Lugt 2497a; lower right)
oil on canvas
18¾ x 22 5/8 in. (47.5 x 57.5 cm.)
Painted in 1890
The artist's studio.
Wildenstein & Co., Inc., New York.
J. Roussel, Paris, by 1951.
Mr and Mrs Ira Haupt, New York, by 1954.
Doris Warner Vidor, New York, by 1964.
Richard L. Feigen Gallery, New York, by 1983.
Acquired from the above by the family of the present owner.
D. Sutton, 'Edouard Vuillard, 1868-1940', in Maanblad voor Beeldende Kunsten, vol. 24, no. 10, October 1948 (illustrated p. 47).
A. Chastel, 'Vuillard', in Art News Annual, vol. 23, 1954 (illustrated p. 39).
M. Waldfogel, 'Bonnard and Vuillard as Lithographers', in Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin, vol. 52, no. 3, September 1963, p. 73 (illustrated fig. 8).
S. Preston, Edouard Vuillard, New York, 1971 (illustrated fig. 21). B. Thomson, Vuillard, Oxford, 1988, p. 32 (illustrated pl. 17, titled 'Sewing', dated 'circa 1890').
M. Makarius, Vuillard, Paris, 1989, pp. 63-65 (illustrated p. 64). C. Frèches-Thory & A. Terrasse, Les Nabis, Paris, 1990 (illustrated p. 75, dated '1892').
Exh. cat., Un hommage à Edouard Vuillard, Maison Lapillonne, Cuiseaux, 1990 (illustrated p. 18).
H.C. Cousseau & D. Ananth, 'Les ruses de l'intimisme: remarques sur la modernité de Vuillard', in exh. cat., Vuillard, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyons, 1990 (illustrated p. 168).
N.E. Forgione, Edouard Vuillard in the 1890s. Intimism, Theater and Decoration (Ph.D. Dissertation), The Johns Hopkins University, Ann Arbor, 1992, p. 96 (illustrated fig. 52).
A. Terrasse, Pont-Aven. L'Ecole buissonnière, Paris, 1992 (illustrated p. 107).
C. Boyle-Turner, Les Nabis, Lausanne, 1993, pp. 38-39 (illustrated).
G. Cogeval, Vuillard. Le temps détourné, Paris, 1993, p. 26 (illustrated p. 57).
A. Ellridge, Gauguin et les Nabis, Paris, 1993 (illustrated p. 100).
A. Salomon & G. Cogeval, Vuillard: The Inexhaustible Glance, Critical Catalogue of Paintings and Pastels, vol. I, Paris, 2003, no. II-104, pp. 130-132 (illustrated p. 131).
Bern, Kunsthalle, Edouard Vuillard, Alexander Müllegg, June - July 1946, no. 19 (titled 'La couture').
Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Vuillard (1868-1940), October 1946, no. 36 (illustrated, titled 'La couture').
Edinburgh, Royal Scottish Academy, Pierre Bonnard & Edouard Vuillard, August - September 1948, no. 63 (dated '1892').
London, Wildenstein, Edouard Vuillard, June 1948, no. 11 (dated '1892').
Paris, Galerie Charpentier, Vuillard, October - December 1948, no. 16.
Basel, Kunsthalle, Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940), Charles Hug, March - May 1949, no. 16 (dated 'circa 1898').
Albi, Musée Toulouse-Lautrec, Toulouse-Lautrec, ses amis et ses maîtres, August - October 1951, no. 337.
Bern, Kunsthalle, Die Maler der Revue Blanche, Toulouse-Lautrec und die Nabis, March - April 1951, no. 164.
Cleveland, The Cleveland Museum of Art, Edouard Vuillard, January - March 1954 (illustrated p. 32, dated '1891'); this exhibition later travelled to New York, The Museum of Modern Art, April - June 1954.
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Art Nouveau, Art and Design at the Turn of the Century, June - September 1960, no. 299; this exhibition later travelled to Pittsburgh, Carnegie Institute, October - December 1960; Los Angeles, County Museum of Art, January - March 1961 and Baltimore, Museum of Art, April - May 1961.
New York, Wildenstein, Vuillard, October - November 1964, no. 4 (illustrated, dated '1891').
New York, Christie's, Van Gogh, Gauguin and their Circle, November 1968, no. 31 (illustrated).
Houston, The Museum of Fine Arts, The Intimate Interiors of Edouard Vuillard, November 1989 - January 1990 (illustrated p. 24, fig. 8, dated '1891'); this exhibition later travelled to Washington D.C., The Phillips Collection, February - April 1990 and Brooklyn, The Brooklyn Museum, May - July 1990.
London, Royal Academy of Arts, Edouard Vuillard, January - April 2004, no. 12 (illustrated p. 67).
London, The National Gallery, on loan, June 2007 - September 2008, (no. L1057).
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Sale room notice
Please note the estimate for this work has been revised to £4,500,000-6,500,000 and is not as stated in the catalogue.

Lot Essay

Painted in 1890, Les couturières is among the most important canvases 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. Antoine Salomon and Guy Cogeval have described the painting as 'a particularly powerful image... rendered in an impeccably Synthetist style' and as 'the object of great critical acclaim' (in op. cit., pp. 131-132).

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 Julien in Paris, where they had met. 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 Gauguin's tutelage. Dubbed Le talisman, the canvas used pure, unmixed colors to communicate the artist's emotions and sensations before the motif rather than to transcribe the actual appearance of nature.

Vuillard met Denis and his compatriots at the Académie Julien in 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, the very same time that he painted the present canvas, 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).

Les couturières 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, the grey-haired figure in the foreground, is shown cutting through a piece of red material that dominates the center of the image. Marie holds the fabric taut for her mother as she cuts. Vuillard made several preparatory sketches for the painting, including a pastel with his grandmother Michaud added to the composition and several charcoal drawings of the seamstresses' faces. The traditional drawing style of the studies, however, belies the formal audacity of the finished canvas. The image is boldly compartmentalized into units of flat color, closely interlocked like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Discussing its composition, Elizabeth Easton has written:

'Vuillard's shapes, their edges receding into depth, take on a life of their own, giving to the composition as a whole a lyrical harmony. The painter alleviates any possibility of visual heaviness or monotony by leaving a thin outline of untouched canvas around each shape-- a visual 'halo' of tone that enlivens the pattern of the composition and enhances the work's subtle spatial paradox... Several ambiguously receding forms serve to complicate the pictorial space, so that it hovers between flatness and depth. For example, the seamstress in the foreground, most likely Madame Vuillard, is cutting a piece of material. She holds a pair of scissors in her right hand, partially hidden beneath the fabric, and pulls away the cloth she has cut with her left. The space created between the two pieces reveals the table top with a spool of thread and the side of the table, which is painted dark brown. The red material, however, makes it almost impossible to recognize the beige and brown shapes as a table, in the same way that a figure sometimes placed by Vuillard at the corner of a wall prevents a clear perception of recession into depth' (in exh. cat., op. cit., Houston, 1989, pp. 36-38).

A key source for the formal innovations of Les couturières is Gauguin's seminal canvas from the summer of 1888, Vision après le sermon. With its abstract space and arbitrary color, Vision après le sermon marked a turning point in Gauguin's creative production. Vuillard may well have encountered the painting at the gallery Boussod et Valadon, where it was deposited from late 1888 until early 1891. Gauguin's bold juxtaposition of bird's-eye and frontal perspective (for the biblical wrestlers and the Breton women, respectively) anticipates the dynamic vantage point of Les couturières, and the compartmentalization of form into flat, sinuously contoured planes is closely comparable in the two works. Salomon and Cogeval have written about the present canvas, 'To the art-lover familiar with modern painting, The Dressmakers appears first and foremost as a jigsaw puzzle of interlocking, undulating flat colours in which the two women grappling with the fabric are a kind of counterpart to the Breton women who observe the struggle between Jacob and the angel in Gauguin's The Vision after the Sermon' (in op. cit., p. 130).

While the present painting is profoundly indebted to Gauguin's work for its stylistic innovations, it could not be more different in its choice of subject matter. Whereas Gauguin aspired to a public art of decoration (Vision après le sermon was offered to the church at Pont-Aven, but was turned down), Vuillard's Nabi oeuvre draws its inspiration almost exclusively from the world of private, domestic interiors. Les couturières, for instance, is part of an important group of paintings that depict seamstresses at work in Madame Vuillard's atelier. The workshop dominated the daily activities of the Vuillard household for a full two decades, beginning in 1878 when the future painter was just eleven years old, and it provided Vuillard with a ceaseless fount of artistic inspiration during his Nabi years. For the first major commission of his career, a series of six decorative panels executed for Paul Desmarais in 1892, he opted to include two scenes of dressmakers in their workshop. Paintings and drawings on the same theme dominated two of his 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. The seamstress paintings are among the finest examples of Vuillard's distinctive interpretation of Nabi tenets; as Easton has explained, 'Vuillard... was grappling in the early 1890s with how to reconcile such quotidian subject matter to a new-found Symbolist aesthetic. In his paintings of seamstresses, he adapted that aesthetic to the world around him. For all their earthiness and concern for telling detail, these paintings transcend the merely workaday to a realm of emotional truth that is beyond specific time and place' (in exh. cat., op. cit., Houston, 1989, p. 26).

In Les couturières, the motif of the seamstress at work may also function as a metaphor for the act of painting. Salomon and Cogeval have proposed, 'The outline of the large piece of red fabric may be seen as a scar, an allegory of the separation between canvas and pigment, while the light brown band separating the two lengths of fabric is an apt metaphor for the partially visible canvas' (in op. cit., p. 132).

The painting is noteworthy as well for its sense of profound absorption, reminiscent of interiors by Vermeer and Chardin that the artist would have known from the Louvre. Both Madame Vuillard and Marie are shown immersed in their work, heads lowered and shoulders hunched. Their gaze is hidden, suggesting a total submission to their task. The insistent flatness of the image, moreover, renders the two women inseparable from their environment; they seem not so much to inhabit the space as to merge with it. Likewise, the central vortex of the composition-- the curve of Marie's arm leading from the left side of the canvas to her head, then flowing to Madame Vuillard's head and her arm, which completes the circle at the bottom right of the canvas-- produces a palpable sense of interiority and immersion. Easton has written:

'The paintings of women sewing stand out in Vuillard's oeuvre for their decorative beauty, their complex construction, and their sense of intimacy. [They] are icons of the inwardness that informed Vuillard's personal approach to Symbolism... 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... The colours, lines, and patterns that Vuillard used to describe these women stand not only for the decorative nature of the product they were making but also for the harmony of the work of art, Vuillard's creation' (in exh. cat., op. cit., Houston, 1989, pp. 39 and 55).

With its radical pictorial and spatial experiments, Les couturières heralds many of the most important artistic developments of the early Twentieth Century. Claire Frèches-Thory has written about the work of the Nabis that, '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). So here, in terms of his use of planes, Vuillard appears to have prefigured the pictures of another artist inextricably linked to the world of textiles, Henri Matisse. In a sense, the theme of the material being shaped by the two women was taken literally by Matisse, whose own cut-outs allowed him to 'draw with colour' in a manner that showed the Nabi aesthetic taken to a new extreme. At the same time, the way in which Vuillard has dissolved the various forms in Les couturières to the brink of abstraction heralds a number of developments in twentieth-century art, ranging from the boldness of Fauvism to Surrealism of artists such as Yves Tanguy and Joan Miró, and the colour fields of Abstract Expressionists such as Mark Rothko.

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