La table, la fin du déjeuner chez Madame Vuillard may be viewed as the dénouement to a remarkable series of paintings done circa 1895, in which Edouard Vuillard fixed his sights on a momentous and trying family crisis, the near breakdown in the marriage of his beloved sister Marie and his best friend, fellow Nabi painter Kerr Xavier Roussel. These insightful paintings comprise a narrative that might be called "scenes from a marriage," to borrow the title of the 1973 film by Ingmar Bergman. Indeed, the Bergmanesque parallel is apt, for in peering below the veneer of contemporary married life, Vuillard in the 1890s, and the Swedish film director some four-score years later, both drew heavily on the precedents of the incisive domestic dramas of the great Nordic playwrights Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg. Vuillard was never more autobiographical than he was in these paintings, and in them he reveals a probing interest in the psychological underpinnings of everyday life that he never again repeated, but only occasionally hinted at, in his later work.
The present painting depicts the principal characters in this family drama. Roussel is seated at right, and his wife Marie occupies the foreground with her back turned to the viewer. The elderly Madame Vuillard sits in the background, and the dark, undefined figure near the left edge is presumably Vuillard himself. In 1892, when Vuillard undertook to draw the attention of his colleague Roussel to his older sister Marie, he was trying to accomplish two things at once. First, Marie was already over thirty, somewhat plain and retiring, a hard worker in their mother's home-based corset and dressmaking business. Both her mother and brothers Edouard and Alexandre would have liked her to find a husband. It did not occur to Vuillard that Roussel might be a poor match-his friend was six years younger than Marie, extremely handsome, and a man-about-town with a reputation as a Don Juan. In fact, Vuillard had accompanied Roussel in 1892 on a hastily arranged trip to Belgium, Holland and London to help extricate the latter from an indiscreet liaison with one of his maidservants. Vuillard wanted to see Roussel settle down. His friend obliged and began to court Marie, as depicted in the painting Le Prétendant ("The Suitor"; fig. 1). However, Roussel had been involved since 1891 in a passionate affair with Germaine Rousseau, whose sister France was married to the Nabi painter Paul Ranson (the latter's home was known the the "Nabi Temple," with France as its "Light"). Roussel may have thought he could use the guise of a proper arrangement with Marie as a cover for his activities. Despite the fact that some members of Vuillard's family had reservations, especially the artist's older brother Alexandre, Roussel and Marie married in 1893. To celebrate the occasion Vuillard painted what Salomon and Cogeval have called his "engagement trilogy" (op. cit., p. 301), which, in addition to Le Prétendant, included Interieur au lit rouge (also known as La Chambre nuptiale; Salomon and Cogeval, no. IV-133) and La Causette (or La Mariée; S. and C., no. IV-134).
Roussel persisted in seeing Germaine, however, and the atmosphere within the new marriage was troubled from the beginning. In December 1894 Marie gave birth to a still-born child, which raised the level of tension between the spouses even further. By the spring of 1895 Roussel's philandering had become well-known within the Vuillard household, and, moreover, had begun to disrupt his relations with fellow Nabi artists, as they found themselves compelled to take sides in the matter. Vuillard described this year in his autobiographical notes, with no small measure of understatement, as one of "complications in the Roussel household." (quoted in ibid., p. 341). While Vuillard was concerned for his sister, and no doubt felt guilty in having been instrumental in guiding her and his best friend into this ill-advised marriage, he seemed unable to take a firm stand on her behalf, especially when Roussel turned on his characteristic charm. Vuillard wrote in his notes in May 1895, "Lunch, Kerr in calm good spirits. This exasperates me, but I am so weary, so craven, that I adapt to the circumstances, as required. I keep everything in, except a vague annoyance" (quoted in ibid., p. 342).
By July 1895 relations between Roussel and Marie had become so strained that Roussel moved out and stayed with his mother. Roussel and Marie would occasionally take their meals together, but Roussel now dared to be more flagrant in his dalliance with Germaine than previously. In September, France and Paul Ranson decided to openly side with Marie and express their displeasure to the adulterous parties. France pleaded with her sister Germaine, but to no avail, and finally announced that she wished to never see Roussel again. During this time Vuillard was doing military service in Nancy, but while he was deeply moved at his sister's plight, he may have been somewhat relieved, for the time being, not to be situated in the thick of it as matters came to a head. He appeared ill-equipped to step in and take the difficult, necessary steps to set Roussel on a mature and responsible path. Instead he took the vantage point of an artist, and from a careful (but not always maintainable) distance, he observed and absorbed the turmoil in the lives of those around him. He transmuted his anguish and self-criticism into a startling series of pictures about marital life. His work as a theater designer and decorator from 1890 onward gave him a taste for modern drama; he knew and worked with the recent plays of Ibsen and Strindberg. His paintings on marital life are in effect the creations of a playwright, rendered not in words but in paint, in which the real and the particular have been transformed into the universality of art. The actual dating of the paintings, from 1895 to 1897, does not in itself constitute a reportive sequence, insofar as Vuillard developed these compositions from his memory of these events, as filtered through his own emotional response to the participants and their actions.
As it turned out, it was Madame Vuillard, "stalwart and virtuous," who took matters into her own hands and helped put the Roussels back on the straight path, if only tenuously. In October she moved next door to the Roussel apartment. She wrote Vuillard, "Things are going better and I believe my decision to move is going to make the young couple's situation perfectly normal" (quoted in ibid., p. 343). The painting Soirée familiale (fig. 2 ) represents Madame Vuillard's entry on the scene. She is seen at the doorway at far right. Marie is the dark, downcast figure seated at the table, while the hunched and shadowy silhouette of Roussel occupies the foreground. Frédéric Henry, a friend of Roussel, is seated at left. Madame Vuillard also figures, at far left, in Le grand intérieur aux six personnages (fig. 3), which was set in the Ransons' drawing room. Germaine appears at left with her back to the viewer, and to her right are Paul and France Ranson, and Ida Rousseau, a poet, and the mother of Germaine and France. Salomon and Cogeval do not identify the figure in a dark dress leaning forward over a sidetable and witnessing the confrontation between Madame Vuillard and the "Young Lady" (as Madame Vuillard would refer to Germaine in her letters to her son). She may represent the victimized Marie, standing in the stage wing, so to speak, as a symbolic if not a real participant in the scene.
La table, la fin du déjeuner chez Madame Vuillard, the present painting, may be considered to be the third scene in this dramatic narrative, and appears to reflect the results of Madame Vuillard's efforts at managing a tentative reconciliation between her daughter and son-in-law. It was probably painted toward the end of 1895, when Vuillard was back in Paris after completing his tour of military service. Roussel, after months of having been chastised by friends and in-laws alike, still looks somewhat sullen as he stares ahead following the luncheon. Marie, however, framed by a pure white panel, is unusually radiant in a lovely red blouse, and the artist takes especially sensuous pleasure in painting the elongated nape of her neck. Despite her diminutive size in relation to the other sitters, and that she almost appears to recede in the wallpaper, we note the redoubtable presence of Madame Vuillard in the background. The artist, on the other hand, assumes a shadowy and ill-defined shape at far left, in keeping with the limited role in he had taken in this crisis.
This painting incorporates elements characteristic of Nabi abstract stylization--the flowing arabesques created by the sleeves of Marie's dress and the patterning in the wallpaper and rug--with an increasing interest in spatial depth and the realistic depiction of still-life and other objects, tendencies that look forward to Vuillard's paintings done later in the decade and into the next century. "The composition's skewed perspective, combined with the subtle interaction of its 'hard-edge' and 'soft-focus' details, conveys the movements of the painter's eye as it darts swiftly back and forth through space" (ibid., p. 343).
In 1896 Vuillard painted La vie conjugale (fig. 4), which may serve as the epilogue to his "scenes from a marriage." This painting has been long regarded as Vuillard's most penetrating analysis of the ennui of bourgeois living, and the insuperable tensions between men and women. It is sad to relate that Vuillard painted it shortly after yet another crisis for his poor sister Marie, a great tragedy in fact, the death of the Roussels' new son, who was not even three months old, in November 1896. Thereafter Vuillard turned away from such scenes in his work, and one may wonder if the cumulative effect of these experiences had a profound and lasting effect on his emotional life, and even discouraged him from marrying--he remained a bachelor throughout his long life. He wrote, "the study of exterior perception, filled with painful experiences, [is] dangerous for my humour and my nerves" (quoted in G. Groom, Edouard Vuillard, Painter-Decorator, New Haven, 1993, p. 58). La table, la fin du déjeuner chez Madame Vuillard, and the other family paintings of 1895-1897 therefore represent an extraordinary but brief and passing phase in the Vuillard's career, in which he approached a crossroads, skirted the edge of an emotional abyss, and held back, choosing not to take the most difficult path. As John Russell has observed, "There is much to wonder about, as there is much to wonder at, in the vocation of Edouard Vuillard" (in Vuillard, exh. cat., The Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, 1971, p. 71).
(fig. 1) Edouard Vuillard, Le Prétendant, 1893. Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts. Barcode 23671041
(fig. 2) Edouard Vuillard, Soirée familiale, 1895. Sold, Christie's, New York, 7 May 2002, lot 10. Barcode 23669321
(fig. 3) Edouard Vuillard, Le grand intérieur aux six personnages, 1897. Kunsthaus Zürich. Barcode 23669338
(fig. 4) Edouard Vuillard, La vie conjugale, 1896. Private collection. Barcode 23669345