At the time Vuillard painted Femme au col de fourrure, he was sharing a studio with fellow Nabis Pierre Bonnard and Maurice Denis, members of a group of young painters who followed the example of Gauguin by painting in flat areas of local color. It was here, in discussions with his studio-mates, that Denis formulated the ideas he expounded in his manifesto Definition du néo-traditionnisme, which was published in the August 1890 issue of Art et Critique. In it he made the famous statement that has since been interpreted as the justification for the abstract, anti-naturalist tendency in modern painting: "It is well to remember that a picture--before it is a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote--is essentially a plane surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order" (quoted in H.B. Chipp, ed., Theories of Modern Art, Berkeley, 1968, p. 94).
Denis might have used this painting by Vuillard to illustrate this maxim. Indeed, the female subject of Femme au col de fourrure seems almost incidental to the manner in which Vuillard has depicted her. The artist has cropped her head and shoulders so that they are barely recognizable at first glance. By playing whimsically with form and painterly textures, Vuillard has imparted a gently humorous tone to his subject, which is more a generalized caricature of a well-to-do parisienne than a specifically characterized portrait of an individual.
Vuillard's inspiration for the uncompromised flattening of pictorial space and the play of looping arabesques also derived from his knowledge of Japanese Ukiyo-e ("Floating World") prints, for which a lively trade had arisen in Paris, fueled by the collecting zeal of the literary Goncourt brothers, and the publication in 1883 of Louis Gonse's landmark two-volume L'Art Japonais. Kitagawa Utamaro was especially prized for his close-up portraits of actors and courtesans (fig. 1), and Vuillard may have had such prints in mind while painting Femme au col fourrure. Vuillard went beyond these sources in his radical cropping of the image, however; it is a device that he used to strong effect, although rarely to this extreme, elsewhere in his freshly conceived and innovative early work.
(fig. 1) Kitagawa Utamaro (1754-1806), Edo Geisha. The Art Institute of Chicago.