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

Le balayeur sur la voie

Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940)
Le balayeur sur la voie
stamped and indistinctly stamped again with signature ‘E Vuillard’ (Lugt 2497a; lower right)
oil on canvas
16 x 12 ¾ in. (40.9 x 32.5 cm.)
Painted circa 1891-1892
Estate of the artist.
Jacques Roussel, Paris (by descent from the above).
Sam Salz, Inc., New York (probably acquired from the above).
Acquired from the above by the late owners, May 1953.
M. Potter et al., The David and Peggy Rockefeller Collection: European Works of Art, New York, 1984, vol. I, p. 212, no. 71 (illustrated; illustrated again in situ in the Rockefellers' Hudson Pines home, p. 36; titled Railroad Station).
A. Salomon and G. Cogeval, Vuillard, Le regard innombrable: Catalogue critique des peintures et pastels, Paris, 2003, vol. I, pp. 384-385, no. V-34 (illustrated, p. 385).
Cleveland Museum of Art and New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Edouard Vuillard, January-June 1954, p. 101 (illustrated, p. 40; titled Railroad Station and dated 1892).
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Lot Essay

Vuillard painted this enigmatic scene of a trio of railway workers around 1891-1892, at the height of his association with the circle of young avant-garde painters who called themselves the Nabis, from a word in Hebrew and Arabic that means prophet, inspired, or chosen. It was during this period, in a career that lasted more than sixty years, that Vuillard produced his most forward-looking, anti-naturalist, and provocatively modern work. The Nabi group also included Paul Sérusier, Maurice Denis, Paul Ranson, and Pierre Bonnard, among others—all of whom had been students at the Académie Julian in Paris, until its conservative curriculum sent them into revolt. Denis, the most vocal proponent of Nabi ideas, dated the inception of the movement to the summer of 1888, when Sérusier brought back from Pont-Aven a small landscape that he had painted under Gauguin’s tutelage. It was rendered in pure, unmixed colors that do not transcribe the actual appearance of nature, but rather suggest the painter’s deeply subjective emotional response before the motif. The Nabis called this magically auspicious painting Le Talisman.
“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,” Denis explained. “Thus we learned that every work of art was a transposition...a passionate equivalent of a sensation received” (quoted in H.B. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art, Berkeley, 1968, p. 101).
Turning their backs on Seurat’s divisionist approach, then all the rage in Paris, the Nabis—like Gauguin—moved resolutely toward an art of synthesis. They agreed on a number of principles central to the artistic revolution that was then underway, including the rhythmic and abstract composition of the painting, the importance of Japanese prints and other non-Western art, and the idea that a picture should represent a profound enigma. “The paintings from this period, inspired by the Talisman, are small works, which slowly but inexorably radiate their own inner sonority,” Guy Cogeval has written. “Many of the works produced by the visionary Nabi [Vuillard] are mysteries that have to be solved, works whose rhythm and line imposed themselves on his consciousness like a kind of automatic writing” (Vuillard, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2003, p. 53).
In Le balayeur sur la voie, Vuillard elevated a quotidian urban scene decisively above the realm of the everyday through daring chromatic combinations, striking contrasts of scale, and dramatic lighting. The canvas centers upon a shadowy figure in the foreground, who wears dark clothes and a broad-brimmed hat and holds a broom at his side. His back is turned to the viewer, and his looming form extends the full height of the canvas. His stiff posture contrasts with the natural, relaxed stance of two men in the middle distance, clad in blue work clothes, who seem to be conversing on a break from their labors before a sunlit yellow wall. Railway tracks, edged with pink reflections, cut across the composition on a diagonal, isolating the figure in the foreground from the workers in blue, and then fade into the darkness at the left side of the canvas.
Like Bonnard, with whom he shared a studio in 1891, Vuillard was a tireless walker and an inveterate observer. Le balayeur sur la voie probably had its inception in a fleeting moment that caught the artist’s eye as he rambled through the French capital, much like his vignettes of children frolicking in public parks and dock workers on the banks of the Seine. The Gare Saint-Lazare, where Vuillard might have taken note of the railway workers, was located some fifteen minutes by foot from his family home in Saint-Honoré, almost directly en route to his studio on the rue Pigalle. “His continual walks through Paris, his almost metronomically obsessive observation of the slightest detail that ‘shimmered’ in his mind, opened up many perspectives,” Cogeval has written. “His discovery of new realities, the broadening of his wide culture, his ever-alert intellectual curiosity—all were bound up with his growing love of strolling through the city” (ibid., pp. 7-8).
Back in his studio, Vuillard distilled the memory of his visual experiences on canvas, here focusing on the disquieting presence of the black-clad figure, brought unexpectedly close to the picture plane and backlit against the citron-yellow wall. As in a photograph taken with the camera pointed directly into the sun, this effect hides detail and emphasizes contour, reconciling the figurative subject with the decorative surface unity of the painting. The unmodulated contrast between an incandescent background and a figure seen in silhouette was one of many unconventional lighting effects that Vuillard explored during his Nabi years, often drawing on his experience designing sets for experimental theater. In a production of Henri de Regnier’s Symbolist play La Gardienne, for instance, Vuillard effectively transformed the actors into flat silhouettes by placing them behind a translucent gauze scrim. The result resembled a live-action version of the shadow plays that Vuillard enjoyed at Le Chat Noir, one of his favorite nocturnal haunts, in which zinc cut-outs were backlit and their silhouettes projected on a small stage.
Among avant-garde painters and dramatists of Vuillard’s day, shadows were widely equated with the essential, intrinsic self—the inside, the underside, or the dark side—rather than with the external, descriptive appearance of an individual. In Le balayeur sur la voie, the use of silhouette to render the railway sweeper is central to the expressive force of the scene, transforming a familiar urban character into a figure of mystery and portent. We might well recall a piece of advice that Gauguin gave to Émile Bernard in 1888, after instructing him to abjure the use of shadow for traditional illusionistic purposes: “If in your composition, shadow enters as a necessary form, it’s a completely different thing. Thus if instead of a figure you put the shadow only of a person, that is an original departure, the strangeness of which you have calculated” (quoted in N. Forgione, “‘The Shadow Only:’ Shadow and Silhouette in Late Nineteenth-Century Paris,” Art Bulletin, vol. 81, no. 3, September 1999, p. 490).
Peggy and David Rockefeller acquired Le balayeur sur la voie from the dealer Sam Salz in 1953. “This painting differs from most Vuillards that we were familiar with...in that it is rather sharper in its outlines,” Mr. Rockefeller recalled. “It was especially admired by Alfred Barr and subsequently by a good many other people who like Vuillard, including William Rubin” (M. Potter et al., op. cit., 1984, p. 212).

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