Friday, June 8, 2012

Vuillard At His Finest: A Reappraisal

Edouard Vuillard (1868 – 1940), Misia Sert and her Niece Mimi Godebska
(The Black Cups)
c. 1923-5, distemper on canvas,
55 1/8 × 68 7/8 in. (140.0 × 175.0 cm),
Private Collection
Photo: Courtesy of Jill Newhouse Gallery

The late paintings of Edouard Vuillard (1868 – 1940) are the focus of a show at the Jill Newhouse Gallery, Edouard Vuillard Paintings and Works on Paper, and an exhibition at the Jewish Museum, Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940. Scholars and critics are reappraising the works which date from the end of the 1890s until the artist’s death in 1940. These are primarily commissioned portraits and murals.  They have been criticized for being ornamental and bland and cited as examples of the painter’s failing powers when he pandered to his rich clients.

Early in his career, Vuillard had been part of the Nabis group of artists. Highly influenced by Japanese prints, their paintings broke down reality into flat patterns of colors. Abstraction dominated. Later, Vuillard’s work changed. His paintings became more naturalistic. What was depicted came to the fore. When successful, the subject and setting interlock making the sitter’s environment an explication of his reality. Vuillard explained, “I don’t paint portraits, I paint people in their surroundings.”

A large number of the late paintings are inaccessible. They belong to the private family collecitons of the original patrons. These owners are often reluctant to lend them for public display. The late works lack exposure has served as a barrier for a thorough understanding. This being the case, the Vuillard exhibits currently on view in New York are a must see. Although the Jewish Museum exhibition is the more comprehensive, the works at Jill Newhouse make the best case for a reevaluation in an installation conducive to contemplative viewing. Thus, I am concentrating my remarks on the gallery show.

Twelve works from private collections are displayed in two beautifully proportioned rooms. Major paintings are balanced with smaller ones. The latter act as visual rest stops from the intense looking required by the former.

Misia Sert and her Niece Mimi Godebska (The Black Cups) takes up almost an entire wall. Vuillard’s first muse Misia, now 51, is seated at a dining room table with her 21-year-old niece standing nearby. At the time Misia was married to her third husband, the Spanish painter Josep Maria Sert (1). She is heavy in middle-age, trying to be up-to-date with her Chanel-like clothes and bobbed hairstyle. Her earlier unconvential life when she had been the focus of the artist’s attention is replaced by upper-class comfort.

Dizzying in its details, the room cannot be taken in quickly. Only slowly do dabbles and blurs of paint become identifiable. Wonders of reflective descriptions fill a higly polished table at the bottom of the picture. Note the glints on the coffee service, the glass goblet with its blue highlights and, in front of the Chinese ceramic figurine, the matchbox that appears to double in the glossy expanse of wood. Look at Misia’s diamond necklace and the brown terrier on her lap then down to their reflections on the varnished table top. Take in the candelabra on a side board, the small blackamoor next to it, the Chinese style chairs against the walls, the sculpture under the mantle shelf and the painting above, perhaps by Sert or Bonnard. Let your eye move backward, through the mirror-like glass door to a partial view of the living room and decorations within. Each object must have been carefully choosen for its formal and tonal qualities.

Edouard Vuillard (1868 – 1940), Misia Sert and her Niece (preparatory sketch),
1925, glue-based distemper and pastel on paper, mounted on canvas,
55 3/8 × 70 7/8 in. (140.5 × 180.0 cm),
Private Collection
Photo: Courtesy of Jill Newhouse Gallery

While Vuillard was painting the portait, he was simultaneously making a full-scale sketch of it on paper. When the painting was finished, he stopped work on the sketch. Both are on exhibit together for the first time. The sketch gives viewers some idea of what the painting would have looked like in its early stages and before the artist ’s 1933-34 changes. These modifications were made prior to the work’s public exhibition. It was displayed in the French Pavilion of the 1934 Venice Biennial. Although Sert wanted Vuillard to paint Misia, he never bought the painting. Perhaps he was not satisfied with it or by 1925 had eyes for someone else. He left Misia for a younger woman a few years later. The sketch and canvas remained in Vuillard’s studio. They were there when he died. One regret, the two works are hung in separate rooms.

Vuillard’s methodolgy involved much preparation. He made extensive drawings of the sitters and their settings then went to his studio to paint. Over 100 sketches survive for Misia Sert and her Niece Mimi Godebska (The Black Cups). He also took photographs with a handheld Kodak camera. He had purchased one in 1897, 9 years after its invention (2). Vuillard seems to have wanted to record everything then paint undisturbed in his studio at his own pace.

Edouard Vuillard (1868 – 1940), Madame Jean Bloch and Her Children,
second version, 1930, reworked 1933 and 1934,
glue-based distemper on canvas,
72 7/8 x 70 7/8 in. (185 x 180 cm),

Private collection, Paris
Photo: Jewish Museum Web site
(On exhibit at the Jewish Museum)

You can listen to Claude Bloch Dalsace’s recollections of posing for Vuillard on the Jewish Museum’s Web site section, Sitting for Vuillard. Jean-André Bloch, her father, commissioned a family portrait in 1927. He wanted a painting of his wife and children. Claude was the Bloch’s middle daughter. She describes the many pastel sketches Vuillard made during the family’s numerous sittings. These sessions lasted about two and a half hours. The artist had been very strict and was displeased when a sitter moved. Afterward, back at his studio he worked on the painting.

Vuillard portrayed Mrs. Bloch and her children in the family’s opulent grand salon. Mr. Bloch was a prosperous businessman. He had amassed a significant collection of seventeenth-century decorative art including the silk wall covering seen in the painting. Gilded furniture, paneled doors, and a Persian carpet all affirm the family’s fortune and sophisticated taste. The portrait of Pope Clement XI hanging on the salon’s back wall was not an oil painting but a tapestry done after a work by the late Baroque artist Pietro Nelli.

Edouard Vuillard (1868 – 1940), Madame Jean Bloch and Her Children,
 first version, 1927-1929, 
glue-based distemper on canvas,

75 3/4 x 70 5/8 in. (192.5 x 179.5 cm),
Neffe-Degandt Ltd., London
Photo: Jewish Museum Web site
(On exhibit at the Jill Newhouse Gallery)

Vuillard painted several versions of the portrait. The earlier one is on display in the gallery show. Madame Bloch is depicted with her three children Giselle, Thierri and Claude. Although barely perceivable, their nanny is included at the left-hand edge of the canvas. She was considered part of the family. A fourth child, Agnès, was born in 1928. Subsequently, the artist was asked to do a second picture. The final version with Agnès is on exhibit in the Jewish Museum. In that last painting, the three other children appear older and the nanny is more clearly defined. Mr. Bloch kept it in his office until World War II when the work was hidden in the countryside. The Blochs recovered the painting after the war. Its earlier versions remained with the artist until his death.

Vuillard choice of medium may have influenced his working methodology. After the turn of the century, he preferred to paint with glue-based distemper. The artist may have been introduced to distemper when he did set designs for the theater. It was commonly used for decorating sets and scenery. The paint is quick drying, spreads well across large surfaces and produces a non-reflective, matte finish which does not dazzle under strong lighting. It could be built-up without difficulty making textural effects easy. The medium, however, is time-consuming and complicated to work with. Sheets of glue, usually rabbit-glue, have to be soaked for hours in water, heated and mixed with powder pigments. Each color requires its own pot. The mixture must be kept warm to prevent it from becoming too hard or thick. The paint had to dry before applying additional layers. In addition, colors change noticeably when dry so the artist had to have a first-rate color memory. The painting that resulted contrasted dramatically with the high gloss look of academic easel painting.

The colors and surface effects of distemper obviously appealed to the artist. He said he liked the process because it forced him to slow down. He had time to think about the work unhurriedly. The possibilities of this paint seem fully exploited in his The Sewing-Party at Loctudy of 1912. Pats and smudges of paint coordinate to form a tapestry-like arrangement. The surface is thick and palpable. As characteristic of Vuillard’s best efforts, the eye transforms marks into recognizable forms gradually. At the request of its private owner, it could not be reproduced.

Edouard Vuillard (1868 – 1940), Venus of Milo,
1920, glue-based distemper on board,
26 × 28 3/4 in. (66 × 73 cm),
Private Collection

Most enticing is the Venus of Milo with its muted hues of blues, pinks and pale yellows. Vuillard posed a model in an intricate domestic interior. The setting was his studio on the second floor of his home, 26, Rue de Calais, where he lived with his mother. Placed off-center, the model’s stance echoes the Venus de Milo’s head and torso full-size plaster cast which sits precariously on the mantel. The sculpture had been unearthed in 1863 on the island of Samothrace. It became part of the Louvre collection a year later. Vuillard undoubtedly know the piece for his primary art education consisted of studying the museum's holdings.

The room is surveyed as if through a fisheye which takes in all. Patterns, textures and objects are varied. The mirror above the mantelpiece reflects multiple images: the back of the Venus cast, statuettes and other items on the mantel’s shelf; a framed painting on the unseen far wall; and, the head and partial upper torso of the model who appears to be looking down at an easel painting to the left of the fireplace (3). In addition, the decor clearly shows the artist’s interests in medieval tapestries and the British Arts and Crafts movement.

The painting is done on board, a surface Vuillard favored. He liked its absorbancy and the pale brownish yellow and grey base it provided for his subdued color harmonies. Initially financial constraints may have led to its use. He had torn off parts of cardboard boxes to work on. Later this choice was purely artistic.

Model Undressing, Boulevard Malesherbes, c. 1909, has an eroticism not normally associated with the artist. A model is seen from behind and to one side removing her slip. Her far shoulder, arms and legs are already exposed. She stands in a room by the side of a bed. Beyond, through a doorway, is a look into another space, perhaps the bath for there appears to be a sink, mirror and tiling. It is a symphony in pinks, mauves and burgundy. The structure is complex. Rectangles, diagonals and squares lead the eye forward and backward yet stabilize the composition. Again, the owner did not want the work replicated. It is for sale like all the works in the gallery show. Misia Sert and her Niece (preparatory sketch) is being sold with its 113 preparatory sketches.

Take a look at the earlier small oils on display. In the tradition of the old masters, Oil Lamp is an engrossing meditative still life of a lamp, key and matches. Painted in 1888, about 9 x 15 inches, the oil reminds us of Vuillard’s indebtedness to the past. It also points to his future in the evenness of tonality and the tactile quality of its painted surface.

1. Josep Maria Sert was a famous and prosperous mural painter. His Abolition of War and Time, both cleaned a few years ago, can be seen in the lobby of 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

2. The Jewish Museum’s exhibition includes a short presentation of Vuillard’s photographic images. The majority of the photographs he made are in his family’s archive and have not been published. The camera’s impact on Vuillard and, for that matter, other artists of this period, is an area that warrants further investigation. The issue was explored in a recent exhibition, Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard, February 4 – May 6, 2012, at the Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. More needs to be done.

3. Although not in the New York exhibitions, for comparison purposes I have reproduced Vuillard’s painting, Madame Vuillard Lighting the Stove. See below. The setting is the same as the Venus of Milo. Note the placement of the mantel items and the easel on the left.

Edouard Vuillard (1868 – 1940), Madame Vuillard Lighting the Stove,
1924, oil on paper mounted on canvas,
25 x 29.25 in. (63.5 x 74.3 cm),
(Not on exhibit in New York)


Edouard Vuillard
Paintings and Works on Paper
April 11, 2012 - May 25, 2012
4 East 81st Street, Manhattan, New York
Monday - Friday, 10:00 a.m. - 5:30 p.m.

Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940
May 4, 2012 - September 23, 2012
1109 5th Ave at 92nd St., Manhattan, New York
Monday, Friday - Sunday, 11:00 a.m. - 5:45 p.m.
Thursday, 11:00 a.m. - 8:00 p.m.
Closed Wednesday

Note: Posted originally on May 18, 2012. This is revised post.

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