Not all artists are very consistent. Sometimes their styles change. Sometimes they are uninspired. Geniuses can have off days.
These obvious truths present problems for connoisseurs and collectors, and the public, a fact often further confused by the fact that most exhibitions and collections are limited. Are we to judge an artist on his entire oeuvre, just the most famous masterpieces, or what is conveniently available? Naturally, the more we have to examine and study and restudy the more refined will be our judgment. Unfortunately, few of us are so privileged as to be intimately familiar with an artist's complete oeuvre, and then, sometimes, such intimacy breeds fatigue and exhaustion.
Blockbuster retrospective exhibitions offer art-lovers the opportunity to feast on a cornucopia of an artist's achievements and usually offer all but a few experts many surprises that document the artist's odyssey through the myriad shoals of style and subject. Sometimes, however, such shows are a bit too academic and include minor or fragmentary work that is not up to the artist's finest efforts. Whether juvenalia or abandoned works or doodles, they can detract from the public's appreciation. Such distractions are of no consequence to many academics, of course, but are probably best left for "study" collections.
While it is refreshing to remember that artists are human, curatorial overkill can deaden the public's enthusiasm a bit, especially when it is mingled with the best work. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, has many great treasures, but sometimes a trip through some of its galleries causes one to wonder why some works are on exhibition.
This January Édouard Vuillard (1868-1940) is the subject of two traveling exhibitions, one, a giant retrospective that is being shown at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the other, a small show at the Berry-Hill Gallery at 11 East 70th Street in Manhattan. In many ways, the latter, much smaller exhibition, is far more interesting as it has many marvelous small works that radically alter the general perception of the artist.
This show includes more than 50 paintings and pastels and is the most important gallery exhibition on Vuillard since a show at Wildenstein in New York in 1964.
The handsome catalogue includes an interview between Luc Bellier and Guy Cogeval, the author of the catalogue raisoné on Vuillard and the curator of the huge retrospective exhibition now on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. In the interview, conducted in August, 2002, Mr. Cogeval, who is the director of The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, provides the following commentary:
"Vuillard's painting remains deeply seductive. He played along with that and he was not mocking us. He knew perfectly well that his style was enchanting and pleasurable, that he was one of painting's greatest 'technicians'; few paintings would have known how to size a canvas the way he did. His painting went beyond the arcane of Symbolist language. He sought it out and the encounter was completely inevitable. It must be admitted that Vuillard above all wanted to paint beautiful works - an idea which is browbeaten nowadays in the name of 'painting as crime,' and other such nonsense which enchants the semi-literate."
In her catalogue essay entitled "Searching the Means of Expression," Elizabeth Wynne Easton, curator of European painting and sculpture at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and author of "The Intimate Interiors of Edouard Vuillard," provides the following commentary:
"Although Vuillard's artistic output spans the widest range of subject and media, from theater sets and large panels painted in peinture  à la colle [literally, painting with glue], to lithographs, photographs and even designs for porcelain, he is certainly best known for the small, sometimes even tiny, easel paintings depicting his family and close friends. For a little over ten years, from the early 1890s until the dawn of the 20th Century, his art was among the most adventurous and ambitious work of his age.Vuillard's best-known work was created in his twenties, when he was a member of a group called the Nabis. Their name, taken from the Hebrew word for prophet, revealed their desire to be prophets of a new kind of art. The Nabis, whose most prominent members, aside from Vuillard, were Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Paul Sérusier, and Felix Vallaton took the art of Paul Gauguin as an inspiration for a radically different kind of painting that eschewed traditional approaches to objective reality, including linear and aerial perspective, and embraced an altogether subjective vision. His best known works demonstrate the power of the Nabi aesthetic, in which color is freed from the constraints of academic versimilitude, and where form and color have meaning quite independent from the objects they describe."
Vuillard is best known for his highly patterned, lush interiors, but this show clearly demonstrates that he was capable of fabulous abstraction and that his matte painting technique was not solely dependent on marvelous texture but also occasionally fine line.
One of the most remarkable works in this show is "Les toits rouges (The red roofs)," shown above. Unfortunately, the catalogue does not indicate whether this was a damaged or unfinished work, a study or a fragment. Nonetheless, it is very strong.
A Fauvish-Neo-Impressionist style work that is considerably hotter in its palette than much of his oeuvre is "La grand-mère à l'évier," shown above.
An extremely impressionistic and unusual horizontal composition is "La partie de volant (étude pour les panneaux Desmarais," a luminous bold work, shown above.
One of the
greatest surprises in this exhibition is "Semis de fleurs
(étude pour la décoration Kapferer)," shown
above, a work that is highly Oriental in style with an unusual
One tends to conjure Vuillard's compositions as tight and not very dramatic. "La Jacanette à l'Etang-la-ville," shown above, is an exception and recalls some of the best work of Vlaminck. It is quite startling.
Vuillard is famous for his large decorative panels of Parisian urban spaces. "Le Square Vintimille," shown above, is a fine example of this genre and is particularly appealing.
The cover illustration of this exhibition's catalogue is "Le matin au jardin du Clos Cézanne (Jos et Lucy Hessel)," show above, an extemely painterly work.
Perhaps the most beautiful work in this exhibition is "Deux femmes dansant au bord de l'eau," an exquisite pastel, shown above, that is reminiscent of the finest work of John Twachtman and Georges Seurat. This is a stunning abstraction.
Art Nouveau was ascendant when Vuillard painted "Naiade," a spectacularly vibrant pastel, shown above, in 1891.
work of great beauty, "Dans la loge," shown above, is
not included in the Berry-Hill show but is illustrated in the
catalogue, while another superb large oil that is quite bright
and bold is in the show but not in the catalogue. "Dans la
loge" is unusual for Vuillard in its hot palette and in the
beauty of its subject.
Accompanied by an impressive, weighty and very large catalogue with 463 color plates and 95 black-and-white illustrations (available for only $40 from the museum's website at http://www.nga.gov/exhibitions/vuillardinfo.htm), the Vuillard exhibition at the National Gallery of Art is formidable and contains many of his best paintings of interiors, many of his large decorative panels, many drawings and photographs, and many portraits.
The frontispiece of the catalogue is "Sacha Guitry in his Dressing Room," a wonderful large pastel that Vuillard executed around 1911-2 and which had been estimated to sell at Sotheby's in New York May 13, 1998 for $300,000 to $400,000. It sold for $607,500 including the buyer's premium (see The City Review article in which it is illustrated at the top of the article) and according to this exhibition's catalogue it is owned by Sir Sean and Lady Connery.
Two fine Vuillards not included in this exhibition nor in the catalogue are "Morning in the Garden at Vaucresson," a classically lush garden scene in the Catharine Lorrilard Wolfe Collection and "Luncheon," a bequest of Mary Cushing Fosburgh, both at the Metropolitan Museum (and illustrated in The City Review article on that museum's exhibition "Painters in Paris: 1895-1950" that ran from March 8-December 8, 2000).
While the early interiors and decorative panels clearly establish Vuillard as a fine artist, the many portraits he executed late in his career are, with rare exception, only good.
The exhibition does have a few gems somewhat comparable to those in the Bellier/Berry Hill exhibition such as "Grandmother Michaud in Silhouette," shown above, and "Octagonal Self-Portrait," oil on board, 1890, 36 by 28 centimeters, private collection, shown below.
Another fine small work is "Lady of Fashion, L'Élégante," shown below.
provides the following commentary on this painting:
"In Vuillard's hands, this utterly banal scene is transformed into a profound metaphysical inquiry. A young woman, no doubt one of Madame Vuillard's clients, is opening a door. Her hat is decked with flowers that seem to burst forth like red fireworks. A mysteriously illuminated area forms a great tau in the second room.Vuillard offers us a figure in a state of waiting, or possibly of surprise. She seems gathered in on herself, a modern-day Pandora who has opened the box that holds a gleaming, inexplicable secret. For the Nabi artist, the passage from one room to the other becomes a transport from reality toward mystery. With this simple, unpretentious little painting, where someone quite ordinary is about to witness a revelation, Vuillard has created a gem.
small painting of the same period is "Self-Portrait with
Cane and Straw Hat," in the collection of William Kelly Simpson
of New York. The catalogue notes that "the citron yellow
of the straw hat standing out against the more muted shade of
the wallpaper behind is very effective, as is the jaunty angle
of the artist's cane. His highly stylized almost cartoonish features
express a new quiet composure, and his handsome red beard makes
him look more than ever like a Zouave. The artist, an elegant
young man, is off for a stroll in the sunny streets of Paris."
Another strong work that employs silhouettes is "At the Divan Japonais," shown above. "This," the catalogue observed, "is unmistakably the face of Yvette Guilbert, easily recognizable by her nutcracker chin and sharp nose, raised imperiously above the audience in the pit.Yvette Guilbert was one of the most celebrated performers of her day, both witty and cultivated."
A work that
is very typical of Vuillard's style is "Interior (Marie Leaning
Over Her Work," in the collection of the Yale University
Art Gallery, bequest of Edith Malvina K. Wetmore. A detail of
it adorns the cover of the catalogue, which provides the following
"The surface of this painting is especially lush. Rich colour and sumptuous pattern are juxtaposed throughout, creating an effect comparable to that of a patchwork quilt, at once discordant and subtly harmonious. At the same time, the brushwork, with its dense impasto and repeated use of scumbling, adds texture, giving the painting a strongly tactile quality. The resulting play of pattern and texture renders the spatial relationships all the more ambiguous. Although the figure of Marie is a solid presence in the foreground, the blue of her dress, the brown of her hair and the gray of her apron are echoed through the composition, discreetly drawing the background elements toward the foreground. Similarly the heavy impasto that is used throughout, emphasizing the pictorial surface, gives more weight and presence to objects that are further removed from the viewer."
Vuillard's palette is usually rather muted but in some works he was very bold and stark. "In the Lamplight," an oil on canvas mounted on cradled pane that measures 37.5 by 45.5 centimeters, for example, shown above, is a very strong work in which Vuillard shifts perspective and uses silhouettes with hardly any modeling. It was executed in 1892 and is in the collectionof the Musée de l'Annonciade in Saint-Tropez.
"Interior with Worktable, also known as The Suitor, is justifiably among Vuillard's most famous paintings, for it is a work in which the artist perfectly merges the intimate with the decorative to create an image that is both visually and psychologically rich. With its voluptuous use of pattern, flickering brushwork and distinctive theme - women observed in feminine activities within a cloistered interior space - it exemplifies Vuillard's increasingly sophisticated approach to the domestic interior, while presaging tow of his most exquisite large-scale decorative projects: the panels executed for Thadée and Misia Natansonand for Dr. Henry Vasquez, painted in 1895 and 1896 respectively. The man in the picture is Kerr Xavier-Roussel who married Marie the year the painting was executed. According to the catalogue, Vuillard was unhappy with his friend Roussel's "numerous amorous adventures": and encouraged him to "keep company" with his sister Marie. "The two were, however, woefully ill-matched," the catalogue continued, adding that "Roussel, charming, handsome and intellectual, had little in common with the rather plain and diffident Marie, who was seven years his senior."
Perhaps Vuillard's loveliest painting is "The Striped Blouse," that is in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon at the National Gallery of Art. It is one of five panels that Vuillard did for Thadée and Misia Natanson in 1895. The five panels are of different sizes and formats and are executed in a stippled, tapestry-like style. "The mood of the panels is languorous, subdued and highly sensual," the catalogue noted.
Misia Natanson was one of the great women at the turn of the century and appears with Felix Valloton in Vuillard's "Misia and Valloton at Villeneuve," collection of William Kelly Simpson, shown above, a very fine work.
One of the
most striking and memorable works in the exhibition is "The
Nape of Misia's Neck." The catalogue maintains that Misia
was Vuillard's "great secret love" and provides the
following quotation from her memoirs:
"The echoes of this agitation (the Dreyfus affair) reached me at Villeneuve, and I decided to leave for Paris earlier than usual. Vuillard then said he wanted to take a last walk along the banks of the Yonne, and we started at dusk. Looking dreamy and grave, he led me beside the river amongst the tall birches with their silvery trunks. He moved slowly over the yellowing grass, and I fell in with his mood; we did not speak. The day was closing in rapidly so we took a shortcut across a beetroot field. Our silhouettes were insubstantial shadows against a pale sky. The ground was rough, I tripped on a root and almost fell; Vuillard stopped abruptly to help me regain my balance. Our eyes met. In the deepening shadows I could see the sad gleam of his glance. He burst into sobs. It was the most beautiful declaration of love ever made to me."
One of the
finest works in the exhibition is "Self-Portrait in the Dressing-Room
Mirror," a 1923-4 oil on board in the collection of Dian
Woodner and Andrea Woodner of New York. The dressing room is covered
with reproductions of works important to the artist as well as
some of his own. The artist's pose implies vigor but his posture
shows age and his visage is rather puzzled. Has he stopped to
focus on one of the hanging pictures and been flooded with memories
or thoughts, or is he experiencing pangs of anxiety, or merely
Vuillard's art is voluptuous and poetic. Although many of his works are conservative subjects, upper middle-class people at ease in their well-appointed surroundings, their sense of serenity and security do not always becalm underlying mysteries and from some of his small works we see that he was a passionate man of emotions. The back cover of the catalogue for this exhibition has the following quotation from Vuillard:
"Who speaks of art speaks of poetry. There is not art without a poetic aim. There is a species of emtion particular to painting. There is an effect that results from a certain arrangement of colours, of lights, of shadows. It is this that one calls the music of painting."