Mere Society Paintings? Look Again
Vuillard Works at Jewish Museum and Jill Newhouse Gallery
By KEN JOHNSON Published: May 3, 2012
If, by some fluke of metaphysics, the last four decades of Édouard Vuillard’s long, prolific and rewarding career were erased from collective memory, he still would not be forgotten. Before the age of 30 he made some of the most beguiling paintings of fin de siècle Paris: intimate, compact, brushy pictures of his mother and sister in the apartment he shared with them and the dressmaking shop they worked in. Painting with special attention to wallpaper and fabric patterns, he made people almost dissolve into atomized, flattened surfaces, anticipating a century that would pulverize into air everything once taken for solid.
After 1900 Vuillard (1868-1940) turned back his own clock. Reverting to a more conventionally naturalistic style and often using his own photographs as references, he painted portraits of well-to-do people and decorative murals for their homes. In the eyes of many critics he became a mere society painter. But Vuillard’s later work has its supporters too, and they are having their say, convincingly, in a pair of exhibitions: “Édouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940” at the Jewish Museum and, at Jill Newhouse gallery, a complementary show featuring major late works as well as some small early paintings and a selection of drawings.
Organized by the museum’s assistant curator, Stephen Brown, the Jewish Museum show includes more than 40 paintings, and 15 from the 1890s convey the hothouse interiority at which Vuillard excelled early. “Woman in a Striped Dress” (1895) is a dreamily blurry picture compressed into an approximately two-foot square. A young woman engulfed in billowing red-and-white fabric tends to flowers on a table in the foreground as an older woman looks on over her shoulder. Domestic routine becomes mystic ritual.
A late painting from the opposite end of the psychic spectrum is the portrait of David David-Weill (1925), which pictures a past chairman of the bank Lazard Frères wearing a business suit and tie and standing in a palatial chamber filled with antique furniture, gleaming decorative objects and a dozen gold-framed paintings on the background wall. As is typical of his late work, Vuillard here decompresses interior space, giving its rich and powerful subject a distinctive, commanding presence and making room for his expensive and well-pedigreed possessions, which Vuillard describes in sensuous detail.
In “Madame Louis Kapferer” (1918), a large portrait of an elderly woman in a black dress sitting in a dark armchair and gazing into space, with a sparkling clutter of decorative glassware on a mantel behind her, Vuillard combines sharp-eyed realism and a subtly comical sympathy. But, as in the portrait of David-Weill, you sense a willingness to flatter and a desire to please.
Part of the exhibition’s mission is to shed light on Vuillard’s social circles, which, as it happened, included numerous assimilated, cosmopolitan Jews throughout his lifetime. With some of these he was quite intimate. He had a romance with Misia Natanson, wife of his friend and first dealer, Thadée Natanson; and a 40-year affair with Lucy Hessel, the wife of one of his later dealers, Jos Hessel.
But it remains hard to say in what way the Jewishness of his relations influenced Vuillard as an artist. What seems more obviously consequential was his move from the avant-gardist circles of his youth, when he belonged to an upstart group of painters who called themselves the Nabis, to a more conservative milieu governed more by money and haut-bourgeois taste.
But Vuillard was not just another John Singer Sargent knocking out suave portraits of the rich and indolent for lunch money. The exhibition at Jill Newhouse reveals how intensely and eccentrically Vuillard labored over his most ambitious late works. Using glue-based distemper paint that he built up into crusty, granular surfaces, he devoted years to some. “Misia Sert and Her Niece Mimi Godebska” (1925), an eerily dark and gloomy, mostly gray canvas measuring more than 4 ½ by 5 ½ feet, took two years. It depicts two women — the elder one the remarried Misia — in a cavernous room, one standing and one sitting at a dinner table whose glassy surface reflects white-striped black teacups sitting on it. A shadowy haze fills the space, rendering the women indistinct and giving the scene a spectral feeling.
An even larger portrait at about six feet square, “Madame Jean Bloch and Her Children” (1927-9), took so long that Madame Bloch had had a fourth child by the time he finished it. So he made another one, reproducing the original image but adding a toddler into the lower left corner at her mother’s elbow. (The second version is in the Jewish Museum show.) As a composition it has the stiffness of an official family portrait. But it compels close scrutiny because of the excruciatingly slow and self-aware technique that he brought to it.
The most surprising as well as the biggest piece in either show is “Garden in Winter With Peacock” at the museum, a wintry picture, 6 foot 9 ½ inches by 4 foot 9 ½ inches, of a fenced-in garden with leafless trees and the bird in question in the foreground. Painted in broad strokes and drawn into with brusquely gestural lines, it is more suggestive of a prison’s exercise yard than of a fancy aviary. Completed in 1940, the year he died, it seems a landscape of despair, which, oddly, calls to mind the allegorical landscapes of postwar grief that Anselm Kiefer would create 40 years later.
These shows are unlikely to change minds about which Vuillard was better — the pre- or the post-1900 model — but they make a convincing case for looking more thoughtfully at what the late one did.
“Édouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940” runs through Sept. 23 at the Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue, at 92nd Street; (212) 423-3200, thejewishmuseum.org. The Vuillard exhibition “Paintings and Works on Paper” runs through May 25 at Jill Newhouse, 4 East 81st Street, Manhattan; (212) 249-9216, jillnewhouse.com.
- ART: Vuillard and His Muses at The Jewish Museum (taniafuentez.wordpress.com)
- Art Review: Vuillard Works at Jewish Museum and Jill Newhouse Gallery (nytimes.com)
- Edouard Vuillard, 1890-1940, at the Jewish Museum (jewishpress.com)
- TT: Just because (in honor of Gil Evans’ centenary) (artsjournal.com)