Portraitist and Chronicler — Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940 by Stephen Brown

Edouard Vuillard: A Painter
and His Muses, 1890-1940

BY Stephen Brown
WITH AN ESSAY BY Richard R. Brettell (Yale University Press/
The Jewish Museum, New York, 2012)

What to do with Eduoard Vuillard? He was an accomplished painter of stunning domestic interiors and their handsome inhabitants, who never made the curve into modernity. His name is absent from most histories of modern French art, possibly through unfortunate luck but also because there was something distinctly un-modern in him, a French painter who lived until 1940 but remained stubbornly allied to Impressionism and the ideals of the Old Masters. His work is perceived as pretty but tangential to the modern project, like an old family album we admire and then abandon on the couch when livelier, immediate matters call us. However, recently there has been renewed interest in his art and life and one of these arrives in the form of Stephen Brown’s Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses. Brown explores Vuillard in the context in which he was best known in his lifetime, as a visual anthropologist of the French Jewish milieu at the turn of the century. This well-written book reconsiders Vuillard’s importance as portraitist and chronicler.

Child of the petit bourgeoisie, the son of a dress maker (his father died when he was a teenager), Vuillard briefly attended the École des beaux arts. In his twenties, he was part of the Nabi’s and was actively involved in the theater. For example, he designed the sets for Alfred Jarry’s scandalous Ubu Roi. He was well-suited to set design for, as Brown points out, already in his work “Domestic life was envisioned as ritual, as a silent drama.” Early exposure to the color and pattern in his mother’s atelier seemed to have had a profound influence on his eye and Brown’s selection of illustrations offer many lovely examples of Vuillard’s extraordinary gifts in painting fabric, pattern and clothing. Traveling in the intellectual and artistic circles of turn of the century Parisian society, Vuillard met the Natanson brothers, including Thaddee, husband of the legendary muse Misia Godebska, and friendships with both set him on his lifelong path as the quintessential portraitist of his wealthy patrons. His touching portraits of Romain Coolus remain small masterpieces of observed male friendship.

This book is a thoughtful and fascinating examination of how images enrich our understanding of social history differently than written description.

The fact that Vuillard himself was neither Jewish nor of Jewish ancestry, informs the book’s raison d’être. Vuillard’s reputation may not have survived academic interest in the phenomenon that became twentieth-century French art, but Brown resurrects him as preeminent portrayer of a once marginalized religious group. The artist was front and center in painting assimilated French Jewry, while his very presence among them proved the centrality of Jewish patronage to French art. Brown states, “Patronage and commissions gave Vuillard channels for development, freed him of doubt and obviated the necessity of exhibition.” His friendships allowed him extraordinary access, and he had the temperament to observe it fully.

What do Vuillard’s paintings, letters, vast trove of sketches and photographs tell social historians about Jewish identity, assimilation and social status in this era? While oceans of written material attest to tensions and trends in post-Enlightenment Jewry, it is informative and fascinating to watch Brown trace these broader concerns aesthetically. This book is a thoughtful and fascinating examination of how images enrich our understanding of social history differently than written description. This arc is underscored by the inclusion of an essay by Richard R. Brettell on the relationship between Proust and Vuillard. The two artists knew each other only superficially during their lifetime, but Brettell examines their shared nature as creators of “deeply ambiguous” portrayals of Parisians. In comparing Proust’s Madame De Villeparisis to Vuillard’s Madame Luis Kapferer, he notes that despite Proust’s evocative masterful description, the one remains an enigma surrounded by beautifully described surroundings, and paradoxically it is the painter of those beautiful surroundings that can appear more expressive of individual character.

Some questions raised by the text, illustrations and essay remain tantalizingly unexplored. Did Vuillard suppress explicit Jewish tropes to honor an assimilated world or because he, a non-Jew, would not have recognized their importance? What is the relation of his excessive materiality to the abstract? In “Nation Without Art,” Margaret Olin suggests that early nationalistic impulses of European art historians ensured that “the visual was thoroughly tied up in the national,” negatively affecting scholarly assessment of Judaism and art. One wonders how this might have affected later considerations of Vuillard. No doubt deeper exploration of these ideas would have made a denser and possibly less accessible book, but one can hope for continued research into these ideas. As it is, any reader interested in the intersection of cultural history, biography and art will find much to admire in this book.

Printed from Cerise Press: http://www.cerisepress.com

Permalink URL: http://www.cerisepress.com/04/12/edouard-vuillard-a-painter-and-his-muses-1890-1940-by-stephen-brown