Arthur Fontaine was an industrialist who, after twenty years of service as Director of Labour, was appointed Chairman of the International Labour Organization following World War I. Beyond his interest in Socialist issues, however, lay a fondness for the merely social, for in addition to professionally supporting miners' issues, he and his wife Marie privately welcomed painters, writers and musicians to salon-style gatherings in their home. The present work attentively illustrates the interior of 2, avenue de Villars, the Fontaine home that served as the setting for these soirées, where luminaries such as Claude Debussy and André Gide were in regular attendance.
At the turn of the century, Vuillard's work began to reflect a shift outward for the artist, both personally and professionally. Though he would ever remain the intimiste, as the present work attests, he began to leave the interior of his own home--the base of his muse-mother's corset-making business--in favor of new spaces. Thanks to the Bernheim brothers, he now had a formal dealer relationship, and cultured patrons like Fontaine contributed to a quieter appreciation of Vuillard and his fellow former Nabis. Maurice Denis, for example, was even closer to Fontaine than was Vuillard, and his Les muses decorated a prominent wall in Fontaine's home (Musée d'Orsay, Paris).
Compositionally, the present work is grounded by a regularity of vertical and horizontal frames--ceiling, doorway and window moldings, panes and furniture legs, and of course the two central pictures within the picture. The loose, almost scrubby brushwork, especially apparent in the freely described floral centerpiece, however, keeps the painting from succumbing to any rigidness its geometry might otherwise promote. Further, Vuillard's asymmetrical placement of the subject in the corner of the arrangement not only dynamizes the work's rhythm, but adds to the cozy intimacy of the scene. In a related work from the same year, Causerie chez les Fontaine (fig. 1; Salomon and Cogeval, vol. II, no. VII-310), a comparable closeness is achieved, this time by nestling the couple in a distant corner of the room, rather than a close corner of the painting. In both cases, Belinda Thomson's observation of Vuillard's "skill at catching character and mood through pose, placement and silhouette," proves relevant (B. Thomson, Vuillard, New York, 1988, p. 64). In the present work, Vuillard's depiction of Arthur Fontaine reading amidst his art collection--the paintings positioned more prominently than the collector--pays fitting tribute to this figure's cultured urbanity and genuine interest in benefaction.
One can speculate that Fontaine might be engaged in the poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé, another frequent attendee of salons within this upper bourgeois circle, and one to whose poetry Vuillard's own aesthetics have been compared. In this work, "the foreground, middleground and background overlap and fuse into a pulsating space that bears a kind of relation to the fusion of imagery in a poem by Mallarmé" (A. Carnduff Ritchie, Vuillard, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1954, p. 16).
(fig. 1) Edouard Vuillard, Causerie chez les Fontaine, 1904. Private collection. BARCODE: 25228236