Le Déjeuner is one of over five hundred paintings that Edouard Vuillard painted of his mother during the course of his life. Images of his family constitute the largest body of work in his artistic production, and many of his early canvases include his mother, grandmother, brother Alexandre, and sister Marie. Madame Vuillard initially appears in the painter's oeuvre as a monumental, ink-black mass that fills claustrophobic and tense paintings such as Mère et soeur de l'artiste, 1893 (fig.1, Salomon and Cogeval, vol. I, no. IV-112). After 1893, when Vuillard and his mother moved to a new apartment following Marie's marriage to the painter Ker-Xavier Roussel, Madame Vuillard is a lighter and more reassuring presence that blends into the background of their apartment. Vuillard's mother "was at the heart of his existence," writes Richard Shone, "providing for his well-being, discussing day-to-day concerns, and supporting his work and career. The comfort of her presence is delightfully encapsulated in a brief entry in Vuillard's diary: 'Dine with mother conscious of growing calmer, of taking peaceful pleasure in her kindly face'" (in exh. cat., op. cit., 2002-2003, p. 95).
In the present painting, Madame Vuillard is seen setting the table for a family lunch. Mealtimes were a common theme for the Nabis, as they provided opportunity to portray psychologically charged interactions within the seemingly banal setting of family life, in often confined settings full of patterned décor. The Belgian poet and playwright Maurice Maeterlinck praised Vuillard for his ability to draw powerful emotive effects from everyday scenes, and wrote that "a good painter will no longer paint Marius defeating the Cimbrians or the assassination of the Duc de Guise, because the psychology of victory or murder is exceptional, and the useless uproar of violence in art stifles the deeper, hesitant, discreet voice of beings and things. [Vuillard] draws uncomplicated images that add to our awareness of life" (quoted in C. Frèches-Thory and A. Terrasse, The Nabis: Bonnard, Vuillard, and their Circle, New York, 1991, p. 230).
Although Le Déjeuner depicts a solitary moment, its emotive impact stems from the intense focus on commonplace domestic tasks and complex interaction between figure and background that appear in Vuillard's larger-scale works. The interior seems to encroach upon Madame Vuillard in this picture, obscuring the outline of her head with a swarm of dots and squeezing her between dining room chairs. Like the other Nabis, Vuillard applied simplified drawing, flat areas of color, and two-dimensional patterns to distort conventional space according to the demands of his subjective, intimiste vision. Jeanine Warnod has written, "Like many other great artists of the late 19th century, Vuillard's delicately allusive expression of intense emotions made his art universal. [His] work is reminiscent of Proust's novels where eye and memory create an inner time. The viewer is also reminded of the obsessive representation of domestic life in the plays of Ibsen and Strindberg as ghostly chiaroscuros and exacerbated sensitivity shroud the obsessive details in the flowery wallpaper and the trinkets accumulated on the mantelpiece" (ibid., p. 23).
(fig. 1) Edouard Vuillard, Mère et soeur de l'artiste, 1893. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. BARCODE: 20627218