Edouard Vuillard: A Nabi & His Muses

BY HÉLOÏSE “GINGER” LEVIT

Fig. 1: Edouard Vuillard (1868–1940)
The Drawer, c. 1892
Oil on canvas, 18⅞ x 14¼ inches
Courtesy, V. Madrigal Collection, New York

Fig. 2: Edouard Vuillard (1868–1940)
Thadée Natanson at His Desk, ca. 1899
Oil on cardboard, mounted on panel, 18½ x 22¼ inches
Courtesy, Helen Frankenthaler

“I don’t paint portraits; I paint people in their homes,” Edouard Vuillard (1868–1940) famously said. Wallpaper, lamps, blankets and shawls, musical instruments, books, and paintings were all clues that revealed the taste and character of his subjects, at home in their habitat. His enthusiastic patrons, many of whom were Jewish, included his dealers, collectors, publishers, and theater impresarios. He, in turn became their chronicler, opening a window into their elegant world as he recorded the rich social and cultural life of fin de siècle France through 1940. Among this group were the three women who served as his muses during the various stages of the career of the bachelor Vuillard. They were, first and foremost, his mother; Misia Natanson, the kittenish concert pianist and wife of publisher Thadée Natanson; and the pugnacious Lucie Hessel, wife of art dealer Jos Hessel.

Fig. 3: Edouard Vuillard (1868–1940)
Woman in a Striped Dress, from The Album, 1895
Oil on canvas, 25⅞ x 23 inches
Courtesy, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon (1983.1.38)

It is not surprising that Vuillard understood the feminine psyche so well. He grew up surrounded by seamstresses in his mother’s dressmaking studio on the Rive Droite in Paris. Eleven years old when his father died, Vuillard’s mother began her dressmaking business to provide for her son and daughter, Marie (Fig. 1). The artist remained devoted to his mother, and lived with her until her death in 1928.

Vuillard attended the progressive Lycée Condorcet, a leading liberal high school located near the Paris Opéra. There, among others who became lifelong friends, he met the artist Ker-Xavier Roussell, who would become his brother-in-law, and the publisher Thadée Natanson (Fig. 2). During the 1890s, the young Vuillard became a member of the Parisian group of avant-garde artists known as the Nabis (“prophets” in Hebrew and Arabic). Taking their inspiration from Paul Gauguin, Art Nouveau, and Japanese prints, the group, which included Maurice Denis, Pierre Bonnard, and Paul Sérusier, used simplified form and pure colors to create decorative, emotionally charged pictures. When Vuillard’s school friend Thadée Natanson, along with his brothers Alexandre and Alfred, founded the influential cultural arts magazine La Revue Blanche, which featured articles by writers Henrik Ibsen, Marcel Proust, André Gide, Leo Tolstoy, and others, while promoting artists Pissarro, Gauguin, and Cezanne; he commissioned Vuillard, Bonnard, and Toulouse-Lautrec to create the poster illustrations.

Fig. 4: Edouard Vuillard (1868–1940)
Misia and Vallotton at Villeneuve, 1899
Oil on cardboard, 28⅜ x 20⅞ inches
Courtesy, William Kelly Simpson

Natanson’s wife, Misia, known as the “muse of the review,” was the adorable sparkling favorite model of the Nabis. The Natanson’s Paris flat, filled with books and paintings, became a rendezvous for the city’s intellectual, cultural, and artistic elite. Woman in a Striped Dress (Fig. 3) depicts a densely decorated interior where two women are arranging bouquets of chrysanthemums. It was originally one of a set of five paintings owned by the Natansons and shows the couple’s aesthetic interests (English Arts and Crafts and Japonisme). The merging of figures and ground and the rich ambiguity of the whole make this an icon of the Nabi period.

By 1896 the Nabi movement had already begun to fall apart, and although the new century would bring a bevy of new art movements (Postimpressionism, Fauvism, Cubism and Abstraction), Vuillard chose to perfect his own artistic statement. Newly invented photography was of great interest to him, and he used it widely as studies for his complex domestic interiors that revealed the personality and interests of his subjects.

Fig. 5: Edouard Vuillard (1868–1940)
Lucy Hessel Reading, 1913
Oil on canvas, 39⅜ x 32⅝ inches
Courtesy, The Jewish Museum, New York
Purchase: Lore Ross Bequest (2010-23)
Vuillard, as well as Bonnard and Renoir, was especially smitten with Misia and painted her in a multitude of settings—in Paris and also at the Natanson’s weekend retreats—La Grangette at Valvins, near Fontainebleau, and Le Relais at Villeneuve sur Yonne. In Misia and Vallotton at Villeneuve, 1899 (Fig. 4), she occupies front and center, with the painter Félix Vallotton in the background, and Thadée, to the left, barely in the scene. Misia’s flowing checkered dress, the paintings, and the vase of flowers against the floral wallpaper create a riot of color and pattern.

Thadée, an enthusiastic dealer as well as a friend, had been the first to recognize Vuillard’s unique talent as he integrated complex patterned backgrounds with the human figure, suggesting that all objects were of equal value. He began promoting the artist among his friends and family, helping to build Vuillard’s reputation through the sale of his intimate portraits, as well as his large-scale vertical panel décorations.
Fig. 6: Edouard Vuillard (1868–1940)
Marcelle Aron (Madame Tristan Bernard), 1914
Glue-based distemper on canvas, 71⅜ x 61⅝ inches
Courtesy, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Gift of Alice C. Simkins in memory of Alice N. Hanszen (95.222)

Vuillard’s relationship with the Natanson’s ended around 1904. After La Revue Blanche assumed a pro-Dreyfus stand in the court case that divided France, anti-Semitic feeling forced the magazine to fold. The Natanson marriage, already on the rocks, ended in divorce. Soon after, Vuillard met the tempestuous Lucie Hessel, wife of Jos Hessel, the art dealer associated with the prestigious family gallery of Bernheim-Jeune. The gallery began promoting Vuillard after 1900, including him in thirty-two group shows at Bernheim-Jeune and five solo exhibitions during his lifetime.

Lucie (Lucy) Hessel became an inspiration for Vuillard, a subject for his paintings, and a stabilizing force in his life. They were constant companions, linked socially for nearly forty years, their relationship accepted by Jos. Lucy Hessel Reading (Fig. 6) places her in profile, quietly reading at a desk beside her bed, not a customary setting for a female portrait. It certainly reveals the closeness of his relationship with Lucy, as he shows her within her private domain. Here, Vuillard employs one of his favorite devices: the mirror at upper left reflects an open window and the garden beyond. The wealthy circle of which Lucy was a part, included the beautiful Marcelle Aron (Fig. 7), Lucy’s first cousin, dear friend, and daughter of a wealthy Jewish banker. Aron was also the second wife of Vuillard’s friend Tristan Bernard, further illustrating the inspiration Vuillard received from friends and patrons whose support became inseparable from the artist’s achievements.

Images of these three women, as well as friends and patrons who provided inspiration
for the artist, are among the fifty works spanning the entire career of the French artist Edouard Vuillard, on view in Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses,
1890-1940 through September 23, 2012 at The Jewish Museum on New York’s Museum Mile. For information, call 212.423.3200 or visit www.thejewishmuseum.org.

Ginger Levit is a private art dealer in Richmond, Virginia, specializing in fine French paintings. She wrote her Master’s thesis on Vuillard and His Jewish patrons. She writes about art, antiques and travel for several magazines.
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