Edouard Vuillard's favourite models in his paintings were his mother and his sister Marie, and this served to heighten the intense atmosphere of intimisme that infuses pictures such as La couture. Dating from circa 1893, this picture shows a woman sewing, one of Vuillard's favourite subjects at this time: other works on the subject are in the collections of the Yale University Art Gallery, the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the Saint Louis Art Museum amongst others. That subject alone indicates that this is probably an image of family life chez Vuillard, as the artist's mother and sister had a dressmaking business. Home life for Vuillard was to change a great deal in the course of 1893, as his sister married his friend and fellow artist, Kerr-Xavier Roussel; this expanded the family group living under the same roof. While the couple would later move out to their own abode, Vuillard would continue to live with his mother until her death, and she would remain one of his most frequent models.
It was around 1893 that Vuillard began to develop a style that removed him from the tenets espoused by his fellow Nabis, whose Synthétisme had released them from the need to anchor their pictures in observation of the real world, allowing them to rely instead on memory and imagination. Vuillard, by contrast, minutely scrutinised the scenes that unfolded before him in order to reveal the almost abstract beauty in everyday life. In La couture, he has paid particular attention to the play of light on the woman's head, dress and hands, filling the work with a timelessness, a stillness and a poetry that recalls Johannes Vermeer's picture of a lacemaker, which had already been in the collection of the Louvre for two decades by the time this work was painted. Vuillard's paintings are deliberately understated epiphanies, continuing the tradition of Vermeer.
In compositional terms, the ideas that Vuillard shared with the Nabis remain in evidence in La couture in its focus on the almost abstract accumulations of colour that have served to capture this scene. As was the case in Paul Sérusier's Talisman and the Japanese prints that so inspired the Nabis, Vuillard's focus is not on creating a sense of space or perspectival notions of depth, but instead on conveying the image through a composition that uses colour expressively and evocatively. This results in a deliberate flatness, the forms and colours on the surface of the picture essentially becoming a pattern. The idea of the picture surface as a pattern makes sewing all the more appropriate a subject matter in his pictures, as here it becomes a metaphor for painting, for Vuillard's own creative act.