Antoine Salomon has confirmed the autheticity of this watercolor.
Vuillard's initial and most active participation in the theatre coincided with his association with the Nabis painters during the early 1890s, when his work evolved with remarkable quickness and assurance within the vanguard of progressive painting in Paris.
John Russell wrote, "He adored the theatre, he mixed a great deal with theatre people, he had theatre people for his first patrons, and he could not look at even the most humdrum scene without giving it, in his mind, a trial run for the stage. He was witty, and observant, and he took nothing for granted; it came quite naturally to him to set down his experience of life on the heightened and economical way which is essential to success in the theatre" (in Edouard Vuillard, exh. cat., The Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, 1971, p. 19).
Vuillard did his first work in the theatre in 1890, designing a program for André Antoine's Théâtre Libre, where his close friend Aurélien Lugné-Poe had been working as an actor. He continued to collaborate with Lugné-Poe when the latter moved on to Paul Fort's Théâtre de l'Art, and then founded his own company, the Théâtre de l'Oeuvre. These groups specialized in recent plays by Ibsen, Strindberg and Maeterlinck. Vuillard held a strong interest in classic theatre as well, and he befriended the actor Ernest Coquelin, known as Coquelin cadet, to distinguish him from his older brother Benoît. Coquelin cadet acted at the Comédie Française, where he excelled in the plays of Molière. He became Vuillard's first collector, and acquired a number of paintings and watercolors, in which he was often depicted on stage. He appears in the present work, seen leaning forward, the second figure from the left, as he acted the role of Argan in Molière's La malade imaginaire. There is a related pastel that shows a similar profile (Salomon and Cogeval, vol. 1, no. III-21).
John Russell described these theatre scenes as "having been dashed off as if in the front row of the stalls. They have an uninhibited linear energy, combined with an element of ruthless intuition about how theatre people carry on, which makes them at once startling and irresistibly droll" (ibid., p. 29). Vuillard's sense of caricature and his fondness for exaggerated gestures was strongly influenced by the example of Japanese prints, especially the close-up portraits of actors by Toshusai Sharaku, and perhaps the ensemble theatre scenes of Katsukawa Shunsho (fig. 1).
(fig. 1) Katsukawa Shunsho (1726-1792), page from the illustrated book Yakusha Kuni no Hana, color woodcut, circa 1772. The Art Institute of Chicago.