But why Vuillard now, and at the Jewish Museum, no less? Vuillard is not well remembered. His friend and colleague, Pierre Bonnard, with whom he is often placed and named (“Bonnard and Vuillard” has become an art-historical half-rhyme) is, with his wilder palette in the depiction of domestic interiors and their inhabitants, more visible and discussed by contemporary viewers. Vuillard’s later career, full of finely delineated bourgeois portraiture, is ostensibly regressive, shunning the radicalism of early-20th-century painting. And Vuillard is not Jewish—although many of his patrons were.
This last fact is the basis for the Jewish Museum’s presentation, curated by Stephen Brown in consultation with Norman Kleeblatt. Here, one sees not only a fabulously talented painter at work, but also rich context, and multiple stories being told. One of these stories is of the prestigious Jewish patronage cycle in late-19th-century France that, in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair and in advance of World War I, was about to end. Another story is, both specifically and allegorically, of a painter’s intimate relationship with his patrons, in Vuillard’s case one of the last to occur in the European-classical mode. (Well, that is until Lucian Freud.) Yet another narrative is of an artist’s odd psychosexual attachments to three women, including his mother, who became muses always slightly beyond his reach. And were all of these stories unknown to viewers, there would still be the high literariness of the paintings themselves: scenarios examining the nature of time and memory, and the consciousness’ reflection in the built and natural environments, with resounding echoes of writers of the era such as Marcel Proust (an acquaintance of Vuillard’s), Henry James and Virginia Woolf.
Vuillard’s early work—his most exciting to contemporary eyes—is tied up with his involvement in the Gauguin-worshipping Symbolist group Les Nabis, founded by Maurice Denis and Paul Sérusier and including Bonnard and printmaker Félix Vallotton. The Jewish Museum does not make too much of it, but Vuillard’s Nabis era grounds him in another iteration of Semitism: the group’s name means “the prophets” in Hebrew, its principles, loose as they were, suggesting types of Jewish mysticism. Curiously, Les Nabis, perhaps more than any other Symbolist group, put traditionalism and avant-gardism side by side. There is a vehement belief in painting as decoration, for instance; in his 1890 text “Définition du Neo-Traditionalisme” (the title says it all), Denis writes that, before content, painting is “primarily a flat surface, covered in colours assembled in a certain order.”
As pure object or form, however—collected and commissioned, what’s more, by the wealthy—painting, in the hands of Les Nabis, can mean much. In Vuillard and Bonnard, the famous compression of space, in which the picture planes fuse and patterns on clothes and wallpaper merge, contain suggestions both theatrical and religious. Figures are actors in sets of their own creation; they inhabit these sets as meaning-makers, interacting with domestic objects, and in a sense blessing them and changing them—making them symbolic.
It is for this reason that Vuillard, like Bonnard and Odilon Redon (and like many French artists before them, notably Fragonard), contributed panels to his patrons’ rooms, thereby executing some of his most representative, glorious work. Perhaps best known among these is the five-panel The Album series, an 1895 commission exhibited in the home of friends and patrons the Natansons. The theme is seemingly trite—women and flowers—but in the Jewish Museum’s representational work from the suite, Woman in a Striped Dress, we see the delirium that Vuillard could lend to such flummery. A later 1917–9 panel included in the show, The Grand Teddy, is a large, horizontal oval that shows a Parisian café bathed in red light. The work, like the panels of The Album, functions as both peephole and mirror, reflecting its patrons as well as giving them a glimpse into their own cultivated psyches. For Vuillard, figures are not so much sculpture as drapery; they blend and flow into their dwellings. In this manner the panels unmistakably bring to mind one of Hollywood’s most prominent aesthetes, Vincente Minnelli, who used paintings as guides to direct, and may have been inspired by Vuillard and Bonnard while collaborating with set decorator Cecil Beaton on the 1958 film Gigi.
Vuillard’s goal, however, was not only to denature the natural, but also to show how a certain coterie of collectors—modern, avant-garde and indeed mostly Jewish ones—were themselves an artist’s greatest inspiration: topically, financially, even formally. As Brown notes, Vuillard’s mother, with whom he lived until her death, made clothes for wealthy clients; she was, like her son, “a purveyor of luxury goods to people who could both appreciate and afford them.” Vuillard, especially in his later portrait work, may betray the influence of canonical European portraiture (notably Velázquez, in his use of disorienting reflective surfaces and paintings within paintings), but his view on his patrons is curiously unproblematic. These are not, by and large, the imperious rich whom he wishes to critique; they are enlightened enablers who, like gods and goddesses, enfold the artist into their bohemian bosoms.
After his mother, then, Vuillard is infatuated with two women attached to key patrons: Misia Natanson, wife of Thadée Natanson (co-owner of the culture journal La Revue Blanche, in the offices of which Vuillard had his first solo exhibition) and, later, Lucy Hessel, wife of Jos Hessel, senior partner of Bernheim-Jeune, the gallery that represented Vuillard, along with Renoir and Matisse, in the early 20th century. Misia, an all-around Symbolist muse and vivacious salonnière, is not as important a presence as Lucy, who reoccurs in decades of Vuillard’s painting: epically, in the tradition of Saskia for Rembrandt. Hessel never seems less than radiant, and Vuillard’s stance is always one of romantic voyeur. (Hessel was married, after all.) An elegiac late work, In the Park at the Chateau des Clayes, part of a series of paintings Vuillard did around this titular castle-residence of the Hessels’, shows Lucy Hessel in old age. She remains elegant and turned away from the painter, her once-full figure wraithlike and, as always, elusive. Old age brings Vuillard back to his experimental beginnings; figures fade into form.
There are always ghosts in Vuillard, no matter how conservative his work. The dress of Madame Bernheim comes slightly into the frame as her child seems to melt into a sofa in Claude Bernheim de Villers; the belly of Thadée makes a brief appearance on the left-hand side of Misia and Vallotton at Villeneuve; Redon’s painting of Ophelia is in the upper-left-hand corner of Vuillard’s portrait Madame Marcel Kapferer at Home. (There are so many other hazily painted paintings, all over Vuillard’s backgrounds.)
Vuillard himself enacts a subtle haunting as his legacy: was he at all influential, and if so, how? Answers are perhaps more apparent now than they have been for the past 50 years. Compare Vuillard’s Twilight at Le Pouliguen to Peter Doig, for instance, or his Misia and Vallotton at Villeneuve to Mamma Andersson or to Margaux Williamson. If not precocious, Vuillard is certainly exemplary. For him, the holding of the figure in decorated abstraction was a small advance. For us, it is a small return.