Exposition hors les murs

Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940)

From September 25th, 2003 to January 04th, 2004
Edouard Vuillard
Autoportrait octogonal, vers 1890
Musée d'Orsay
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
See the notice of the artwork
Edouard Vuillard-Autoportrait octogonal
Edouard Vuillard
Autoportrait octogonal, vers 1890
Collection particulière
© Collection particulière

This is the largest exhibition ever devoted to Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940). It is the first opportunity for an in-depth assessment of his entire career which stretched from the 1890s to the 1930s. The exhibition presents a total of 230 works - paintings, drawings and photographs - from public and private collections all over the world and from the artist's studio.

Edouard Vuillard-Les Lilas
Edouard Vuillard
Les Lilas, vers 1890
Collection particulière
© Collection particulière

Vuillard came from a humble background - his mother was a corset-maker - and was attracted by painting from an early age. At the Lycée Condorcet, where Bergson and Mallarmé were teaching at the time, he met Ker-Xavier Roussel and Aurélien Lugné-Poe who drew him into the group of the Nabis, early in 1889, alongside Ranson, Sérusier, Denis and Bonnard. Vuillard's style was constructed on a stimulating paradox. Passionately interested in museum art - Le Sueur and Chardin - he was also attracted by the Synthetism of the Nabis, and became part of the avant-garde movement led by Emile Bernard and Gauguin. Vuillard's work then displayed a series of stupefying inventions, completely new ways of framing the image and radical use of colour. He produced several daring compositions in which a few lines contained figures symbolically expressed in violent colours (Lilacs and Octagonal Self-Portrait, private collections). No other Nabi took the temptation of the indecipherable to such lengths (The Stevedores, private collection), practising a form of abstraction before its time.

Edouard Vuillard-L'Oie
Edouard Vuillard
L'Oie, vers 1890-1891
Collection particulière
© Collection particulière

The exhibition devotes an entire section to the avant-garde theatre that Vuillard became involved in through his Nabi friends. At a time when French drama was in a state of upheaval, the idea of using painters in stage productions opened a new era in theatre history. For nearly five years, Vuillard, the co-founder of the Théâtre de l'Œuvre, worked as a set designer and decorator for works by Ibsen, Strindberg and Maeterlinck, which deeply affected his painting, both in form and content. Thus for Ibsen's The Master Builder, performed in April 1894, the sets designed by Vuillard included a completely revolutionary sloping stage, which can be seen in his painting, The Goose private collection).

Edouard Vuillard-Intérieur, mère et soeur de l'artiste
Edouard Vuillard
Intérieur, mère et soeur de l'artiste, 1893
New York, The Museum of Modern Art
© The Museum of Modern Art

In the 1890s, Vuillard explored the subjects that made him famous: interiors where his mother, sister and the workers in the corset factory went about their daily tasks, surrounded by speckled wallpaper. (The Stitch, Musée de l'Annonciade, Saint-Tropez; Under the Lamp, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven). Vuillard painted this world as if he were weaving a tapestry - one of his major visual sources in the 1890s - using the whole range of textured effects.

Edouard Vuillard-L'Aiguillée
Edouard Vuillard
L'Aiguillée, 1893
New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University of Art
© Yale University of Art

But he gave these everyday scenes a heavy, disturbing atmosphere which he owed to his taste in literature and drama (Interior, Mother and Sister of the Artist, Museum of Modern Art, New York). He directed his family as if staging a play, designing his paintings like mini dramas which blended biography and symbolism (The Suitor, Smith College Museum of Art, Massachusetts).

Edouard Vuillard-Les jardins publics. Les deux écoliers
Edouard Vuillard
Les jardins publics. Les deux écoliers, 1894
Bruxelles, musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique
© Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique

The flagship work of Post-Impressionism, The Public Gardens (1894), thrust Vuillard into the limelight. Eight of the nine panels of the set commissioned by Alexandre Natanson - the brother of Thadée Natanson, who directed La Revue Blanche - now scattered throughout the world, have been brought together again for the exhibition. They are a masterly demonstration of Vuillard's decorative skills. Commissions poured in. The exhibition insists on this decisive part of Vuillard's creative career, presenting a number of works that have never been shown before: a set designed for Dr Vaquez (1896), screens belonging to Stéphane Natanson and Marguerite Chapin and part of the series The Album, a sensual and loving homage to Misia, the talented young Polish pianist who had married Thadée Natanson.

Edouard Vuillard-Misia et Vallotton à Villeneuve
Edouard Vuillard
Misia et Vallotton à Villeneuve, 1899
Collection particulière
© Collection particulière

Publication of La Revue Blanche stopped between 1900 and 1910 and Symbolism subsided. Vuillard frequented fashionable galleries - Bernheim-Jeune in particular - and the brilliant, carefree world of boulevard theatre. He was close to Sacha Guitry, Yvonne Printemps, Tristan Bernard and Henry Bernstein.
Misia and Thadée Natanson and Bonnard were long-standing friends. Yet he chose a cousin of the Bernheims, Jos Hessel, as his sole dealer; Hessel's wife, Lucy, became his muse, protector and lover for forty years.

Edouard Vuillard-La meule
Edouard Vuillard
La meule (détail), entre 1907 et 1908
Musée d'Orsay
© Musée d’Orsay, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt
See the notice of the artwork

Each year, Vuillard went on holiday in Normandy or Brittany with the Hessels, bringing back landscapes and interior scenes that showed a greater sensitivity to light and space than his youthful works (The Haystack, Musée des Beaux Arts de Dijon; Twilight at Le Pouliguen, private collection) as well as a number of photographs which are on public display here for the first time.

Edouard Vuillard-Interrogatoire du prisonnier
Edouard Vuillard
Interrogatoire du prisonnier, 1917
Paris, musée d'Histoire contemporaine
© Paris, musée d'Histoire contemporaine

1914-1918, the war brought a break in his career. Enlisted as a military artist for a while, Vuillard captured a reality that had taken a tragic turn (Interrogation of the Prisoner, Musée d'Histoire contemporaine, Paris). After the war, Vuillard continued to express the "quivering of the times" in his portraits. A few poorly-known examples are presented here: manufacturers, bankers and actresses - his favourite clientele. "I do not do portraits, I paint people at home,": Vuillard's laconic comment pinpoints his artistic ambition, largely nourished by his experience as a decorator. His models and their surroundings are placed on the same level, with no hierarchy. Vuillard details all the clues to changes in taste, fashion or technical progress. Thus his talent as a portraitist takes us from the wicked charm of Yvonne Printemps coaxing Sacha Guitry to the rigors of Art Deco in the portrait of Jeanne Lanvin.

Edouard Vuillard-Jeanne Lanvin
Edouard Vuillard
Jeanne Lanvin, en 1933
Musée d'Orsay
Legs de la Comtesse Jean de Polignac, fille du modèle, 1958
© RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
See the notice of the artwork

The last twenty years of his life were the apotheosis of his career. The decorator stepped forward for the last time, painting murals for the Théâtre de Chaillot in Paris and the League of Nations in Geneva (1938). The exhibition permits a re-evaluation of this last period, questioning his contribution to the "return to objectivity" between the two wars, and looking at the way the Nabi painter remained an artist of his time, challenging tradition and observing modern life with lucidity and irony.