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- Édouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1980-1940By Stephen Brown, Richard R. Brettell
- The Nabis and Intimate ModernismOur PickBy Katherine M. Kuenzli
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Important Art by Édouard Vuillard
Vuillard is pictured here with his mother, grandmother, and sister, Marie. In this work the artist contrasts the idea of dinnertime, which is usually a coming together of human solidarity and communication, with the scene pictured here, where each silent family member occupies a separate space, symbolizing their separate inner thoughts. There is bread and wine, but no one is eating or drinking. Madame Vuillard dominates at the left with her massive lateral, and compact silhouette, as she hunches over her task of lighting a flame, her bent elbow and head shrunken down into the neck both shutting out all proximate figures. A highlight of candlelit negative space separates Mme. Vuillard from the grandmother, who likewise shrinks down into herself, her face depicted only with an area of dark shadowing. Marie assumes a frontal stance toward the viewer, but seems to withdraw into a tightened facial expression and magisterially clutching, as if for protection, a sturdy baguette. The artist occupies a separate physical space as he peers from the background through an open doorway. In a subtle bit of irony, typical of Vuillard, a peaceful and idyllic painted landscape leans in toward the scene from above, only serving to underscore the tensions below it. This is a fine example of Vuillard's unique ability to transform cozy domesticity so as to reveal the underlying psychological drama.
Vuillard painted many pictures of women sewing because his mother (shown at the right) ran a corset-making shop and presumably also worked as a dressmaker, given the presence of so many patterned fabrics in the workspace. It has been pointed out that Vuillard's paintings often show the influence of his familiarity with the theater, as in this work with the figures' postures, gestures, and positioning in space. Sewing - an intense, quiet, and inward activity - is here interrupted by the theatrically timed "entrance" of the centrally placed male figure (Ker-Xavier Roussel, who was to marry Vuillard's sister Marie, shown here gazing toward him as he opens the door).
The figures seem locked into the shapes of their flattened forms or the patterns of their attire and surroundings, particularly the women, who are also depicted with the least individuality. They are symbols of the work they perform: the color and pattern of Marie's dress, for example, is reiterated several times in the blocks of space that surround her. Her patterned dress and surroundings call to mind her everyday work of sewing patterned dresses from patterned bolts of fabric. This work is an example of Vuillard's unique ability to use color and pattern to symbolize states of being such as the repetitiveness of work and/or the loss of individuality through work.
This painting depicts Vuillard's sister Marie and his mother Mme. Vuillard. The figures merge and interact with the space. Through pattern, Marie blends into her surroundings; through pattern, the artist is able to suggest that she is what she does. There is a struggle between figure and space, creating an uneasy symbiosis between figure and environment that instills a feeling of psychological disturbance as her form bends to fit the space and suggests ambivalent human relationships. The interior of the space is a burden to Marie, while Mme. Vuillard dominates it.
This work is also an example of the Nabi credo of respecting the overall pattern, the two-dimensional surface, and decorative schema. Although gender and class issues may be subtlety alluded to here, Vuillard's work also alludes to that time of transition when women were entering the workforce. Mme. Vuillard seems perfectly comfortable with, in fact in charge of, her surroundings, while the younger generation, personified by Marie, struggles against the confinement.
This painting of the artist's mother and sister is not an example of portraits in the traditional sense. Here Marie's physiognomy (and posture) is as a puppet/marionette with the upturned and slightly pinched nose and solid black dot of an eye as if a sewn-on piece of felt. This aspect of a puppet, while mildly humorous, can elicit pathos as well. Mme. Vuillard's face, on the other hand, is more like a mask atop a stalwart black silhouette - both entrenched and immovable. Because he is able to generalize, Vuillard's portraits are amongst his most communicative means, and are all the more psychologically intense. In Vuillard's work, the facial features - even when they are altered - become the very symbols of all intense feeling. Vuillard has created his own more modern version of a portrait: the artist combines the specific features of the actual person with non-human and generalized features and thus can refer symbolically to all humanity.