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A Lifetime of Art

NGA Offers Comprehensive Look at Édouard Vuillard’s Work

The post-impressionist French painter Édouard Vuillard is thought to have once said, “You achieve success either by one glorious feat, or by seniority.”

Over the course of his life, however, Vuillard would prove himself wrong, producing not just a single, magnificent work, nor a dreary litany of merely acceptable output, but rather an oeuvre of complex and varied brilliance ranging from masterpieces of intimate, domestic scenes to theater sets, playbills, decorative panels and even porcelains.

Much of Vuillard’s prolific, if understated, genius makes its way into an eponymous exhibit opening Sunday at the National Gallery of Art. The show — billed as the most comprehensive to date — includes more than 230 works, an effort not undertaken since 1938, when the the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris staged a Vuillard retrospective.

Organized chronologically, the exhibit explores Vuillard’s life through the mediums and styles which defined him, beginning with his membership in a klatch of revolutionary Parisian artists and ending with an homage to the artist’s skills as portraitist.

Trained at Paris’ École des Beaux-Arts, the young Vuillard once dreamed of becoming a military man like his father but turned to painting at the urging of friend and classmate Kerr-Xavier Roussel, who would later marry his sister Marie.

After a brief stint at the École, Vuillard soon found he derived greater inspiration from that greatest of Parisian museums — the Louvre — and left the school to pursue a more self-directed artistic education.

“It was really in the galleries of the Louvre where he learned to develop himself as an artist,” explained Kimberly Jones, the National Gallery’s assistant curator of French paintings, adding that Vuillard was heavily influenced by earlier masters such as Jean Baptiste Siméon Chardin, Jean Antoine Watteau and Jan Vermeer.

By 1889, Vuillard had joined a group of artists called the Nabi (from the Hebrew and Arabic word for “prophet”), which had been formed the previous year by painters Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Paul Ranson and Paul Sérusier. The group sought to upend traditional notions of art in favor of synthetism and essentially formless depictions.

Heavily influenced by the flat, unmodulated colors of Paul Gauguin’s work, as well as by the verticality and flatness found in Japanese prints, the Nabis emphasized feeling and subjective interpretation, rather than precise imitation of a given scene or moment.

The result is strikingly eye-catching, and Vuillard’s assertion that “the purer the elements, the purer the work of art” reflected in exhibition paintings from this period, with their shallow depth and patches of bold color. Standouts include: the 1890 “Octagonal Self-Portrait,” in which Vuillard — the “Zouave Nabi” as he was known due to his trim, red beard — evokes his image in a clash of orange, pink and yellow under a halo of blue and pink confetti; “The Stevedores,” with its reference to Seuratian pointillism; and “The Boa,” where the simple question of a lady’s wrap takes on almost serpentine qualities.

It was not only the sort of paintings one usually finds resting on easels which consumed Vuillard and his colleagues’ attention, however, as Nabis rejected strict divisions between fine and decorative art.

By the early 1890s, the group’s notions of the “the total work of art” led the Nabis to turn their energies to avant-garde theater, and Vuillard was no exception. While the sets Vuillard illustrated for productions by several of these theaters have been lost, many of the playbill covers and programs remain and are represented in the exhibit, including one for Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People.”

At the same time Vuillard was designing sets for symbolist theater, he was also creating the small, domestic scenes which would largely come to define his oeuvre in the public mind. The exhibit’s passel of intimate family tableaus and portraits of women sewing are among its most poignant, with his mother — who owned a corset and dressmaking shop in Paris — a frequent muse (his father died when he was 15). As the exhibition notes, the “psychic dramas” at play in these works bear testament to Vuillard’s belief that it is in familiar places that “one’s spirit and sensibility” discover that which is “really novel.”

While Nabis such as Vuillard’s close friend Bonnard (now the subject of a show at the Phillips Collection) may have been more consumed with the bigness of a work, for Vuillard, the underlying psychology behind a moment was paramount, said Mathias Chivot, a research assistant for the forthcoming Vuillard Catalogue Raisoné. In the 1893 “Seamstress with Scraps,” a diminutive figure hunches over some cloth, the folds of material like clouds levitating above her worktable; in “The Suitor,” Vuillard chronicles the courtship between his sister and Roussel, who peeks out chameleon-like from the flowered wallpaper; and in “Marie at the Balcony Railing,” a dreamy-eyed young woman seems to foreshadow the approach of an unseen love. (Vuillard himself never married and lived most of his life with his mother, dubbing himself “terribly single,” and choosing to cast his affections at varying times on two married women.)

By far the exhibit’s crowning feature is “The Public Gardens,” a series of decorative panels depicting figures gamboling through the verdant backdrop of the Tuilerie gardens and the Bois de Boulogne. Commissioned by the publisher of La Revue Blanche — for which Vuillard often contributed works — eight of the original nine panels have been brought together for the first public viewing since 1906. The ensemble is complemented by the nearby presence of an enormous, wall-sized painting, “Île-de-France Landscape: The Window Overlooking the Woods,” which conveys the quiescence of a countryside day in horizontal bands of green.

During his lifetime, Vuillard would snap some 1,700 photographs on his Kodak camera. The inclusion of a room of these original photographs ranks among the other gems of “Édouard Vuillard.” Here, Vuillard’s subjects are captured very much in the moment — dining in restaurants, slumped near haystacks, frolicking in the nude, posing on a staircase, even midway through a morning toilette brush in hand. Though Vuillard declared his preference for painting, these images served as valuable aide-mémoires in the development of other works by the artist.

With the advent of World War I, the predominantly apolitical Vuillard was briefly drafted into the French Army, which later set him to work doing what he knew best — recording the Great War in color as he did most notably in the 1917 “Interrogation of the Prisoner,” which presents the gaunt figure of a German soldier facing his French inquisitor.

As the concluding rooms of “Édouard Vuillard” demonstrate, a contract signed with the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune at the turn of the century brought Vuillard in contact with a bevy of wealthy and glamorous figures. Accordingly, images of fashion designers, filmmakers and actresses warm the walls. Vuillard — who once said, “I don’t paint portraits, I paint people in their homes” — captures these individuals among the objects dear to them: a shelf of books, an office filled with papers, a dressing-room toilette, their art collections. His “Self Portrait in the Dressing Room Mirror,” is in keeping with this tradition, where a white-haired, T-shirted man stares out at the viewer surrounded by aging canvases.

Vuillard died in 1940, as France was subsumed by the Nazi-backed Vichy regime. Sixty-three years later, his work — so richly revived at the National Gallery — continues to speak of poetry, just as Vuillard would have wanted.

“Édouard Vuillard” will be on display in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art from Jan. 19 to April 20 before traveling to Montreal, Paris and London. In conjunction with the exhibit, the National Gallery will hold a special day of lectures Feb. 1, from 10:30 a.m. -5 p.m., in the large auditorium of the East Building and will also host additional talks and lectures, as well as family and teacher workshops during the exhibit’s run. Additionally, the National Gallery and the French Embassy will co-host a series of early 20th-century French films and silent movies accompanied by live performances featuring musicians such as pianists Jean-Francois Zygel and Ray Brubacher, and organist Thierry Escaich. For more information about these events, go to www.nga.gov/ exhibitions/vuillardinfo.htm. For information about the events at the Embassy, see www.la-maison-francaise.org.

Chief curator Guy Cogeval has prepared a three-volume book, “Vuillard: Critical Catalogue of Paintings and Pastels,” to coincide with the exhibit. The 1,900-page, comprehensive survey of the artist’s work will be published this April.

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