01 self-portrait with waroquy

Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses

01 self-portrait with waroquy

Paris, between World War I and II, was a glorious era for the arts (Proust, Picasso, Matisse, Stravinsky, The Ballet Russes). It was also a time of enormous influence for a culturally sophisticated Jewish elite, some wealthy, some not, who supported avant-garde artists of all stripes, as patrons, gallery owners, critics, impresarios and publishers. Edouard Vuillard, though not Jewish, flourished in their intimate world of salons, chateaux, dining rooms, offices and homes. Among them were his art dealers, their families, many of his collectors and fellow artists, including a group of artists known as The Nabis (prophets in Hebrew and Arabic), with whom he launched his career, and who favored symbolism, metaphor and dreamlike imagery. (Above, Vuillard Self Portrait with Waroquy).

Vuillard in His Studio

Given Vuillard’s immersion in this world, which he drew upon for so much of his work, Claudia Gould, Helen Goldsmith Menschel director of the Jewish Museum, had the inspired idea of putting together this splendid exhibition, the first focused exclusively on Vuillard in New York in over 20 years. Like The Steins Collect, now at the Metropolitan Museum, it not only assembles works never seen together before but deepens our understanding of relationships which influenced his career and inner life.

The Drawer

Woman in a Striped Dress

Woman Seated on a Sofa

Vuillard loved women and was a master of domestic interiors. Like Bonnard, also a member of The Nabis, there is often a particular richness of decoration and meaning at the edges of many of his images, as in “The Drawer.” His mother, with whom he lived until her death in 1928, was his first and most important “muse,” and he often placed her in his paintings. She created clothes for wealthy women and we often glimpse her hand labor in his paintings. Even if she is not physically present, Vuillard focuses intently, lovingly and beautifully on female gestures and occupations, such as flower arranging in the glorious “Women in a Striped Dress” or reading, in “Woman Seated on a Sofa.”

Misia and Vallotton at Villeneuve

Lucy Hessel at the Seashore

Lucy Hessel Reading

Two other women entranced Vuillard, both of whom served as both patrons and muses. The first was Misia Natanson (pianist and wife of Thadee Natanson, founder and editor of the avant-garde journal of culture and the arts, La Revue Blanche). Both Thadee and Misia become key figures in his work and life as collectors and friends. After the couple divorced and their magazine ceased publication, Vuillard found new patrons who became a sort of second family, Jos Hessel, manager of the Galerie Bernheim-Jeunne (soon Vuillard’s gallery) and his wife, Lucy Hessel, with whom he had a long and intimate relationship. He lovingly painted her image for decades, well into their mutual old age. We see Lucy at the seashore, young and beautiful, Lucy at her desk (set in her bedroom, it was considered rather shocking in 1913, since she was not his wife), Lucy in a meadow, and one of the last images in the exhibition, white-haired Lucy in a Black Velvet Headband, smiling a serene smile of affection. It is an image clearly painted with love.

Misia Natanson, Cannes

One of the surprises of this exhibition is the revelation that Vuillard was a devoted photographer. As early as 1897 he began to record his life, his friends, and the world around him with a Kodak Brownie Box Camera, and used images he captured almost as a sketchbook. After he died, nearly two thousand of his small-frame format prints survived. One can see evidence of his photographic eye in his later portraits, about which he famously said, “I don’t do portraits, I paint people in their surroundings.”

Sam Salz

Madame Jean Bloch and Her Children

Madame Marcel Kapferer at Home

David David-Weill

I have long loved Vuillard’s muted, mysterious, highly patterned and yet palpably real interiors that bring to life the world of women. But his portraits were unknown to me and they are impressive. There is something intense, focused and incredibly modern about the image of Sam Salz, painted in the late 1930s, who became the main art dealer for Vuillard in America. And in the image of Jean Bloch and her children, with nanny to the left, we see an entire world of luxury and wealth as it existed in the 1930s. It hung in the office Jean-Andre Bloch until his arrest by the Nazis and deportation to Auschwitz in 1941. Only his wife and children survived the war. Perhaps because we know that the world Vuillard depicted would soon be utterly destroyed, these portraits are, to me, particularly haunting.

In conjunction with this exhibition there will be a series of daytime and evening lectures by, among others, Stephen Brown, who organized and curated this exquisite and fascinating show.

Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940
The Jewish Museum, New York
May 4th – September 23, 2012

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