At Last, Vuillard: Mammoth Collection of Painter’s Epochs

We’ve had to wait a very long time to see a full-scale retrospective devoted to the work of the French painter Édouard Vuillard (1868-1940). The last really big show is said to have been organized in Paris in 1938. I have fond memories of a later exhibition that John Russell organized in 1971-72 at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, and Mr. Russell’s catalog for that show remains one of the best accounts of the artist’s work. But the show itself wasn’t intended as a full retrospective. Now that a truly mammoth survey-numbering some 230 works-has come to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, we’re at last able to see the entire range of the artist’s achievement.

It’s an achievement far more astonishing than even the most devoted of Vuillard’s admirers-among whom I count myself-might have expected. Vuillard’s work tends to be so closely identified with the Nabi period and the early domestic interiors that it still surprises us to be reminded that he produced so much else. And it’s not always an agreeable surprise for us to be recalled to some of the paintings of the artist’s later decades. For over the course of his career in the 20th century, Vuillard’s work underwent some significant changes-some of them remarkably audacious, to be sure, but some in the direction of a more “public” style that is bound to be disappointing to fans of his early intimist period.

Early Vuillard, with its inspired, headlong transformations of bourgeois domesticity into a highly original mode of chromatic abstraction, remains for most of us the classic Vuillard, and with good reason, too. In these small domestic-interior scenes, with their radically cropped figures of family and friends all but surrendering their identity to the vivid patterns of the clothes they wear and the textiles, wallpaper and lamplight that define the spaces they occupy, we’re given one of the primary achievements of the Post-Impressionist era.

The late Fairfield Porter, who acknowledged Vuillard as one of the two principal influences on his own paintings (the other was Willem de Kooning), said it best when he wrote: “He had a greater range than his contemporaries, with an ability to construct that surpasses the abstract painters, and a diversity of material that the realists have not attained, united by a sensitiveness that is more personal than that of the Impressionists, and therefore more human.”

It is to the early interiors that the visitor to this large retrospective feels compelled to return again and again. Though the paintings tend to be small in size, they are often immense in the scale of the visual poetry they encompass-a poetry that does not always reveal itself in a flash, but requires patient attention to its subtle, painterly details. Vuillard himself spoke of poetry and music in regard to his own work: “There is no art without a poetic aim,” he said. “There is a species of emotion particular to painting. There is an effect that results from a certain arrangement of colors, of lights, of shadows. It is this that one calls the music of painting.”

Vuillard was sustained, and indeed inspired, in his quest for poetry and music in his art by his close association with three avant-garde groups in Paris, all of which played a major role in shaping his artistic thought in the most fertile period of his development. The first was the circle of painters-among them Pierre Bonnard and Maurice Denis-who called themselves Les Nabis (“The Prophets”) and took their cues from Gaugin, Puvis de Chavannes and, in Vuillard’s case, the Neo-Impressionists in breaking with the orthodoxies of Impressionism. The second consisted of the theatrical artists, especially Paul Fort and Aurélian Lugné-Poë, who commissioned Vuillard to design their pioneering productions of plays by Ibsen, Maeterlinck and Strindberg.

The third of this trio of modernist groups was the circle of artists, writers, aesthetes and patrons associated with La Revue Blanche , the elegant journal founded by the Natanson family that served as the literary voice of the fin-de-siècle Paris avant-garde. Together with Vuillard’s stage designs, it was the decorative paintings commissioned by the Natansons that launched him on the large-scale “decorations” that marked a decisive break with the intimism of the early interiors.

First with the decorations and then more blatantly with Vuillard’s late portraits-many of them anything but intimate in feeling or scale-we find ourselves in the presence of an artist who has greatly expanded his outlook on the world and modified his work accordingly. Landscape and cityscape now loom as more compelling subjects, and so do the glamorous figures of the haut monde . Is there also in the decorations an impulse that at times bears a certain resemblance to Salon painting? Sometimes, yes. But it’s in the late portraits of people in high places that Vuillard succumbs to something very much akin to Salon art. Like everything else Vuillard produced, the late portraits are beautifully executed, yet they are devoid of the poetry and music we treasure in the early pictures.

Not everyone will agree, then, with the claim made in the catalog by Kimberly Jones that “the decorations are among the artist’s most personal works.” After all, what could be more personal than the intimist interiors presided over by Vuillard’s mother, with whom the artist lived until her death in 1928? And the interior scenes presided over by Misia Natanson are similarly far more “personal” in every sense of the word.

Still, everything Vuillard put his hand and mind to compels our interest, and among the late paintings there are some real shockers: a painting of a prisoner of war under interrogation, for example, and another of surgeons performing an operation. Needless to say, Vuillard’s “failures”-if that’s what they are-are far more engaging than most other artists’ successes.

It’s staggering to think of all the work that’s gone into the organization of this splendid retrospective and the writing of the enormous catalog that accompanies it. All praise, then, to Guy Cogeval, director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, who is the chief curator of the exhibition, and to his collaborators on both the exhibition and the catalog. I am not usually a fan of exhibition catalogs almost too weighty to carry home, and this one runs to more than 500 glossy pages. Yet in this extraordinary volume, Mr. Cogeval and company have given us a study of Vuillard that is so readable, so illuminating and so perfectly attuned to the sensibility of its subject and its period that it’s well worth reading even if you cannot get to see the exhibition itself. At times, it may seem as long as Proust-about whose relations with Vuillard, by the way, the catalog has some interesting things to report-but it’s worth the time and effort.

Meanwhile, Édouard Vuillard remains on view at the National Gallery in Washington through April 20, and will then travel to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (May 15 to Aug. 24), the Grand Palais in Paris (Sept. 25 to Jan. 4, 2004), and the Royal Academy of Arts in London (Jan. 31 to April 18, 2004).