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From time to time, Christie's may offer a lot whic… Read more PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE COLLECTION

Madame Jean Bloch et ses enfants

Madame Jean Bloch et ses enfants
stamped with the signature 'E. Vuillard' (Lugt 2497a; lower right)
distemper on canvas
76 3/4 x 68 7/8 in. (195 x 175 cm.)
Painted in 1927
The artist's estate.
Private collection.
Victor Bourlant, Paris.
Anonymous sale, Sotheby's, New York, 16 May 1984, lot 367A.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
A. Salomon & G. Cogeval, Vuillard: The Inexhaustible Glance, Critical Catalogue of Paintings and Pastels, vol. III, Paris, 2003, no. XI-260, p. 1441 (illustrated).
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Imogen Kerr
Imogen Kerr Vice President, Senior Specialist, Co-head of 20th Century Evening Sale

Lot Essay

The present work, Madame Jean Bloch et ses enfants, is the second full-scale preparatory study for a final portrait of the same title. In both the present and final paintings, Vuillard employs soft, glowing tones to warmly illuminate the sitter’s expressive faces and accentuate the plush, gilded furniture. The present work is a lavish yet familiar iteration of one of the artist's most-loved and most-acclaimed subjects: the interior family portrait, of which his are renowned for their perceptiveness and subtlety.

Executed between 1927 and 1929, the present work is typical of Vuillard's later interior scenes in which he favours a ‘more spatial and Impressionistic treatment of his subject, in contrast to his earlier flat and silhouette-like work characterized by extensive use of patterns and dramatic colouring’ (R. Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery's Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, London, 1981, p. 756).  This realist approach is in keeping with the rappel à l'ordre of the 1920s, although, from as early as his student days, Vuillard had sought inspiration from some of art history’s greatest realists, Dutch masters Johannes Vermeer, Jan Steen and Gerard Dou. It is, however, the 17th century Spanish artist Diego Velázquez that perhaps most informs the character and composition of Madame Jean Bloch et ses enfants.

With its vertical format and monumental scale, the direct, inquiring gaze of its sitters, and the framing of its composition, the present work can be aligned with the Spanish master’s chef doeuvreLas Meninas, a painting which had gained near mythical status by the time Vuillard was a pupil at the Académie Julian in the mid-1880s. A less-than-subtle allusion to the same painting can be found in an early work by the young artist, Vuillard and Waroquy of 1889, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Yet, where Velázquez’s group portrait is one of grandiose austerity, in the present work Vuillard captures the casual calm of a close family – a family perhaps escaping the heat of midday by withdrawing into the cool haven of a comfortable home. With Vuillard, as with Velázquez, producing a compelling group portrait required not only faithful representation of the sitters but a quality of the intangible and unspoken. This Vuillard hints at in his journal, which he kept systematically throughout his life and artistic career, in which he writes on this particular version of the painting: ‘The effect of the curtains drawn to keep out the sun; relationships finer [and] closer than those I painted, more transparent’ (quoted in A. Salomon & G. Cogev, Vuillard, The Inexhaustible Glance, Critical Catalogue of Paintings and Pastels, vol. III, Milan & Paris, 2003, p. 1442). Characterized by warm reds, greens, golds and ochres, the filtered light – caused perhaps by those ‘drawn’ curtains – renders the palette of Madame Jean Bloch et ses enfants truly luminescent.

The group portraits of his late career demonstrate Vuillard’s remarkable capacity to capture the particular relationships between his sitters. It perhaps for this reason that, by the late 1920s, the artist had made a name for himself as ‘the best known of living portraitists’ (ibid, p. 1297). Through brisk, assured, and expressive brushstrokes, the well-appointed interior room of the present work overflows with rich carpets, textiles and elegant golden furnishings, providing a portrait in-kind of the commissioner himself, absent from the family group: Jean Bloch. Bloch was an industrialist who made a fortune in, appropriately, kitchen and bathroom fixtures – a businessman of the domestic sphere (ibid., p. 1441).

Vuillard was commissioned to produce the Bloch family portrait in 1927, a year in the artist’s career notable for the flood of commissions he received by the haute-bourgeoisie for intimiste images – the same year, Vuillard painted several portraits of the Parisian elite, all similarly situated in their own homes, including Madame André Wormser and her Children.

However, of all the 1927 commissions, it was this particular project that captured Vuillard's attention for the greatest period of time: he completed two versions of the final portrait, at least two full-size preparatory studies, of which the present work is one, and a host of sketches of Madame Jean Bloch from the years 1927 to 1934 (Salomon & Cogeval nos. XI-259-XI-262). Depictions of mothers and children must have rung particularly resonant for Vuillard during these years; his brother had died in 1927 and his mother – with whom he was extremely close, and lived for most of his adult life – passed away in 1928, shortly after he began work on the Bloch commission. The contemplative stillness of Madame Bloch et ses enfants thus takes on a gentle echo of nostalgia, an attempted preservation of a moment shared by precious family in the security of a cherished home.

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