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Edouard Vuillard’s Jewish Muses

A Jewish Museum show reveals an avant-garde painter in turn-of-the-20th-century Paris transformed by his patrons into a mere portraitist

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From left: Félix Vallotton; Edouard Vuillard; Misia Natanson’s brother, Cipa Godebski (standing); Alexandre Natanson; the actress Marthe Mellot; Thadée Natanson; and Misia Natanson, photographed by Alfred Natanson, c. 1898, gelatin silver print. (Private collection, courtesy of the Jewish Museum)

The French painter Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940) had a great and abiding admiration for painters of the past, most notably Rembrandt. In the course of a visit to one of Rembrandt’s works in the Louvre, he was reported to have said to friends with some pride that Rembrandt “also painted only Jews!” In fact, where Rembrandt may have occasionally painted Jewish subjects, Vuillard’s portraits post-1900 or so were almost exclusively of his Jewish patrons.

The anecdote is cited in Jewish Museum curator Stephen Brown’s capable exhibit catalog (Yale) for the museum’s new show, opening Friday: Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940. The museum is interested in Vuillard because of the important part that Jewish patrons played in the Parisian avant-garde during the painter’s lifetime and in particular because of the special relationship between Vuillard—who was not Jewish—and those patrons.

In spite of the deep sectarian divisions in turn-of-the-century French society, which the Dreyfus affair rendered starkly visible, the spearhead of the avant-garde in France and more particularly Paris was largely unhindered by identity, and Jewish players in that select group, whether creators or enablers, were very much present. (Buyers and patrons were named Rothschild, Ephrussi, Camondo; dealers were Wildenstein, Bernheim, Seligmann, Kahnweiler, among others.) One of the leading avant-garde print organs, La Revue Blanche, was run by Thadée Natanson, who hailed from a prominent banking family. His wife Misia was also active in the magazine and in maintaining the constant political and artistic conversation that took place around the magazine. Indeed she can be said to have been the Revue’s muse. Contributors to the magazine include a veritable who’s-who of the French avant-garde—Debussy, Verlaine, Apollinaire, Toulouse-Lautrec, Bonnard, Proust, and Jarry.

Some of the visual artists who wrote for La Revue Blanche were members of a short-lived group calling themselves Les Nabis. The term comes from the Hebrew or Arabic for “prophet,” which was a nod to both their rebellious self-regard and, possibly, their beards. The group formed in the late 1880s under the painter and writer Maurice Denis and painter Paul Sérusier. Vuillard was a participant in the movement, and it was the doorway provided by the Nabi group that led him by the early 1890s into the offices of La Revue Blanche and the creative ferment of the French avant-garde.

But once in the world of the Revue, Vuillard was also led, or perhaps lured, into a social milieu in which he evidently felt very comfortable. (Vuillard was hardly a socialite; he was someone who referred to his mother as his muse.) A large part of that comfort was affective. For a short period until about 1900, he had a close if not amorous relation with Misia Natanson, then a more ardent relation with Lucy Hessel, the wife of the art dealer Jos Hessel of the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery, which played a pivotal role in the Parisian avant-garde. Vuillard remained close to Lucy Hessel until his death. Perhaps not coincidentally, 1900 marked a turning point in his painting style, when he in effect left the exploration and innovation of the avant-garde and became, if the idea makes sense, a highly skilled 19th-century portrait painter.

The role of patron in the fine arts is a complex one; that is clear all the way through the 18th century. The 19th century added a new element, as Romanticism suggested that the artist was no longer to be viewed as an artisan—a word that should not be read in a pejorative sense—but as an independent spirit. Of course the spirit has to eat, and though the ways artists could earn a living making art was changing, the patron remained a highly relevant player through the first part of the 20th century.

The Nabi movement called among other things for a renewed role for decoration in the visual arts. But this implies the necessity of patronage, of clients who order décor for their living spaces as well as for other artistic endeavors such as set design or murals for public spaces. In turn patronage implies obligation and a potential loss of independence. Only the strongest artists can successfully resist subsuming themselves to a strong patron, although the cooperative effect of a group of artists such as the Nabis makes resistance easier. When the group drifted apart around 1900, as many of its members followed their inclinations toward new developments such as cubism, resistance to the demands of patronage became more difficult.

The original aims of the Nabi group went beyond decoration. In what was a deep part of the avant-garde and scientific exploration of the period, many, including the Nabis, questioned the program in which three-dimensional space was depicted as a codified projection—the rules of perspective—on a flat canvas. The fascination the Japanese print held for late-19th-century artists was a sign of the interest in exploring new representations of space. Among others, Degas and Van Gogh made explicit use of the approaches seen in Japanese prints. Such influences are evident in Vuillard’s painting from the 1890s.

For the Nabis, decorative painting could be produced with wide fields of pure color, following Gauguin’s lead. Vuillard, with his lifetime inclination to make pictures of interiors, took this approach down a new path. Possibly because of his mother’s dress-making business, he became interested in the sorts of patterns present in textiles. To reconcile the depiction of patterned textiles with that of uniform fields of color, the textiles are themselves presented as uniform flat fields of pattern, which introduces confusion in the perspective.

Vuillard’s pictures from this period (which dates from roughly 1890 to 1900) are based on the depiction of rich and complex decorative fields. The subject is representational, but the perspective is confusing, deliberately so. Patrons, among them the Natansons, commissioned murals and easel paintings for their homes, set designs and graphic art for theater projects, and so forth. Vuillard’s palette was from the beginning muted, yet it remained rich and subtly varied, favoring the types of original contrasts that Gauguin had produced and that were so much a part of the program of the Nabis. In many of the paintings from Vuillard’s early period, the human presence is almost ghostly, the inhabitants of those paintings merging into the patterns of their environment.

Vuillard did not continue his exploration of décor after 1900, when he entered into the second phase of his career. Matisse was the proper inheritor of the interest and promotion of pattern in interior spaces. But Matisse, a painter of the French south, also welcomed the presence of the outside, which penetrated his interiors through open windows and merged as pattern with those of fabrics or other interior elements. In Matisse these patterns become dynamic and bring movement to the work, culminating perhaps in the great dance pictures and the cutouts that seem to provide an example of actual dance on a flat surface. Vuillard, on the other hand, seems to have suffocated within the interiors of his patrons. The patterns became of finer texture and in the end hardly seemed to matter. Vuillard became a conventional portraitist: commanded by a patron (with whom he, Vuillard, had a close social relation) who attended a sitting. The result produced an opaque image of a sitter in his surroundings, or rather the surroundings the patron wants to reveal.

Instead of continuing to paint decorative pictures, Vuillard ended up painting pictures of décor. They are not the same thing. It is perhaps instructive to compare the evolution of Vuillard’s contemporary and close friend Pierre Bonnard, who was another painter of interiors and began, like Vuillard, as a member of the Nabis. His patterns too become finer, but rather than painting pictures on order, he was painting personal pictures of an unmatched intimacy, and in the end his images seem to become scintillating showers of light coming from the interior of the subject. Bonnard leads us further into the 20th century; Vuillard, at this distance, seems to want to lead us back.

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Edouard Vuillard

A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940 at The Jewish Museum
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