In November 1908, at Vuillard’s solo show at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, the main attraction was a stately ensemble of four decorative panels, each more than six feet tall, depicting the streets of Passy, the quiet Parisian neighborhood where the artist had lived until a few months earlier. These paintings, which are offered in the present sale, caught the eye of the playwright Henry Bernstein, whose flamboyant lifestyle bore no small resemblance to the sensational melodramas that he crafted for the Parisian stage. Bernstein acquired the four Passy panels from Bernheim-Jeune for his stylish bachelor pad on the rue Haussmann, paying the dealer more than three times the price that Vuillard had received for the ensemble. Delighted with his purchase, Bernstein commissioned the artist a few months later to produce another set of four Parisian cityscapes with the same dimensions, to complement the earlier ensemble. The present lot consists of two of these paintings; the other pair now belongs to The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.
For the second Bernstein project, Vuillard again chose as his subject the city streets in close proximity to his own home. By that time, however, the artist had left Passy and had returned to his old neighborhood on the edge of Montmartre, in the livelier Batignolles quarter. Sleepy, suburban Passy, he had come to feel, was too far from the commercial center of Paris and the homes of his closest friends; moreover, he felt out of place among the well-heeled residents of the district. “Leave rue de la Tour with the intention of never returning,” Vuillard recorded in his journal on 18 July 1908. “Pleasure in being again at Clichy” (quoted in G. Groom, op. cit., 1993, p. 172).
The artist took a corner apartment on the fourth floor at 26, rue de Calais, with splendid views over the Place Vintimille, a small oval park contained within a city block. Rather than reprising the street-level perspective of the Passy views for the new set of decorative panels, he opted to work from the elevated vantage point of his window, capturing the lively activity of this popular, middle-class neighborhood. One of the four paintings in the ensemble—part of the present lot—depicts a plunging vista along the rue de Calais, recalling the rapidly receding suburban arteries of the Passy sequence. Here, however, Vuillard used the decorative cornice of his apartment building to crown the image, marking out his own viewing position in the very foreground as a foil to the rush into depth of the street below. The other three paintings represent the Place Vintimille itself, with its familiar population of couples en promenade, nannies with their wards, and figures seated on benches. The central portion of the square is depicted in the panel seen here, while the left and right sides appear in the two Guggenheim panels.
Vuillard worked on the paintings intensively during the winter of 1909-1910, delivering them to Bernstein in late March. As the artist composed these high-angle views, with their radically cropped forms and sharply tilted planes, the innovations of Japanese print-makers were never far from his mind. “Clearer appearance of the square, imagination somewhat aroused, mental labor, the Japanese prints of Hiroshige,” he noted in his journal (quoted in cat. rais., op. cit., 2003, p. 804). Vying with this decorative impulse, however, was a burgeoning naturalistic interest in rendering a particular moment in time, inspired by a revelatory visit to Monet in early December. “Project for the Bernstein paintings. Memories of Monet,” Vuillard recorded. “His newness still for me” (quoted in G. Groom, op. cit., 1993, p. 175). In the rue de Calais painting, Vuillard captured the effect of muted light breaking through heavy cloud cover; in the Place Vintimille sequence, a ray of low winter sun rakes across the left-hand panel, becoming slightly more muffled in the central scene, and disappearing behind gray skies in the panel on the right.
“The panels reconcile the artist’s ties to the decorative, and thus to the goal of pictorial harmony,” Elizabeth Easton has written, “with the careful depiction of time of day, weather conditions, and anecdotal particularities of specific moments during his observation of objective reality. In this way, the panels offer a resolution between the complexities of Vuillard’s early work, which strove to depict an ‘idea,’ and the embrace of the real world that occupied the last three decades of his career” (M. Drutt, ed., exh cat., op. cit., 2001, p. 248).
Vuillard left no indication of how he intended the four panels in this group to be installed. The three paintings of the Place Vintimille have often been described as a triptych, based upon their seemingly continuous, panoramic view of the square. Yet slight discontinuities in the roofline and foreground suggest that Vuillard conceived them as loosely linked views—each painted from a distinct vantage point, under slightly different conditions of weather and light—rather than as a unified whole. The Rockefeller panel, perhaps the first to be painted, is more freely brushed than the paintings in the Guggenheim and lacks a full-sized distemper study, suggesting to Margaret Potter that “as the conception evolved, Vuillard may have intended that the views of the Place Vintimille function alternatively as a triptych or a diptych” (op. cit., 1984, p. 215).
Guy Cogeval has proposed, furthermore, that Vuillard envisioned the panels from the outset as functioning in pairs, one wider and one narrower like the views of Passy (A. Solomon and G. Cogeval, op. cit., 2003, p. 805). Bernstein’s daughter later recalled that all eight panels were hung in the boulevard Haussmann apartment on double doors, which faced into the salon on one side and the dining room on the other. The apartment, she wrote, was “done up tastefully, beige silk on the walls, thick curtains, Chinese-style lacquered furniture from England, Coromandel screens, and eight Vuillard panels in lieu of doors” (quoted in ibid., p. 804). Vuillard saw the Passy panels in situ in Bernstein’s apartment in October 1909 and returned there in November to measure the space, suggesting that he designed the second set of panels with this location in mind.
The Bernstein commission marks the first of three ambitious decorative projects that Vuillard devoted to the Place Vintimille over the course of his career. In the earlier Passy panels, the artist had experimented with an exceptionally loose brushstroke and an open, airy composition that he would never repeat in his subsequent decorations. “The Place Vintimille panels, on the other hand, would be a touchstone,” Gloria Groom has written, “for other small- and large-scale works on similar themes” (op. cit., 1993, p. 177).
In 1911, the year after he completed the Bernstein commission, Vuillard painted a five-panel folding screen for the American singer Marguerite Chapin that depicts the Place Vintimille under bright summer sun (Cogeval and Salomon, no. IX-165; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). The screen repeats the steep, panoramic perspective of the Bernstein panels, but adopts a tighter angle of vision over the square. In 1915, Vuillard received a commission from Emile Lévy to paint the Place Vintimille once again, this time from the less vertiginous vantage point of the second-floor apartment to which he had recently moved (no. X-102).
Vuillard lived above the Place Vintimille for the rest of his life, and his name has become intimately associated with the small park. “I cannot pass the Place Vintimille,” wrote the author Paul Morand in 1943, three years after the artist’s death, “under these chestnut trees that Vuillard so often painted, from the height of his family apartment at the corner of the rue de Calais, without thinking that I am there at a crossroads of time, at a turning point of Parisian sensibility and French art” (quoted in ibid., p. 240).