Édouard Vuillard’s portraits of musician Misia Natanson and society beauty Lucy Hessel reflect a 40-year preoccupation with depicting different elements of Paris society. On 27 February paintings of both muses will be offered as part of the Hidden Treasures sale
Édouard Vuillard never married, yet he was captivated by two women, the pianist Misia Natanson and the society belle Lucy Hessel. On 27 February, two sumptuous paintings of his muses are offered in the Hidden Treasures sale at Christie’s.
When Vuillard painted La femme au fauteuil (Misia et Thadée Natanson) in 1896 he was in love with its subject, the mesmerisingly beautiful Misia Natanson. Misia was married to the convivial journalist and tireless supporter of the Nabis group, Thadée Natanson. The pair made a glamorous couple, and the artist quickly fell in with their bohemian world.
Sensual and remote, Misia was the perfect muse for Vuillard, who depicted her in a luxurious, tightly patterned interior. In fact, so intricately decorated is the room that the décor appears to float free of the walls, and the fashionably dressed pianist almost vanishes into the background to create a rich, startling original canvas.
Vuillard’s devotion continued unrequited until Misia left her husband for the wealthy publisher Alfred Edwards. Bereft, the artist found support from the celebrated society hostess Lucy Hessel, wife of his art dealer Jos Hessel. Her milieu was the elite Paris of the fin-de-siècle era: a world of aristocratic salons and society doyennes who bewitched the cultural aesthetes that came calling. Vuillard was entranced, and painted Lucy within the utopia he so desired.
Through his patrons,
Vuillard gained access to this cultivated circle and
became a much sought-after portrait painter — not that he
ever considered himself as such, once declaring, ‘I do not
paint portraits, I paint people in their surroundings.’
Like his literary contemporary Marcel Proust, Vuillard was consumed with the task of documenting this privileged world from the perspective of an outsider, imbuing even his most intimate paintings with a certain detachment.
Intérieur, la dame en noir is a fine example of this. Lucy, in a fashionable black dress, is depicted adjusting her hat. The room in the rue de Rivoli is luxuriously furnished and the pictures on the wall reflect the Hessels’ taste for the most radical artists of the time.
The post-Impressionist and fellow symbolist
Maurice Denis’ Légende de chevalerie, painted
in 1893 — which sold at Christie’s in March 2018 for a record
€703,500 — hangs above Lucy’s head, next to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s
Femme de maison-Pierreuse. Two paintings by
Paul Cézanne can also be identified: Cinq baigneueses, above the door frame, and the partially visible Portrait de Madame Cézanne, on the far right of the painting. This is the home of a thoroughly modern couple.
But what about the artist painting it? There are few clues
to Vuillard’s personality. He was a bachelor who lived with
his seamstress mother until his sixties, but he was also,
quite clearly, a man about town.
Even Proust struggled to define him — the Zen-like character Elstir in Remembrance of Things Past is thought to be a depiction of the shy but free-spirited artist when he was mutely besotted by Misia.
After the First World War, Vuillard’s paintings were seen as
nostalgic — a depiction of an innocent world now lost. Yet
this ignores Vuillard’s infinitely radical approach to painting.
As a symbolist and member of Les Nabis group of artists,
Vuillard sought to free colour, using it to express his ideas
He had a tendency to conflate his sitters with their surroundings,
creating flat, decorously patterned scenes that had a theatrical
quality to them. His attention to design and fabric was perhaps a legacy of his mother’s profession as a dressmaker, while the stage-like
interiors were inspired by his time as a set designer. As
an admirer of Ibsen and Strindberg, he recognised that a
domestic scene, with its stifled emotions and unspoken grievances,
could be just as powerful as an act of aggression.
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Vuillard remained devoted to Lucy Hessel, whom he described as his
‘guiding light’, and confessed himself to be ‘totally dazzled by her’ until his
death in 1940. Today, Intérieur, la dame en noir is, according to the art historian Peter Sutton, ‘among Vuillard’s
finest achievements’. Aside from its accomplished brushwork,
it is an essential historical record of an Elysian world — one to which only the few gained access.