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Edouard Vuillard

French painter, draughtsman and printmaker
(1868-1940)

Edouard Vuillard, Self-Portrait, Aged 21, 1889, National Gallery of Art, Washington,
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

(born in Cuiseaux, Saône-et-Loire, 11 Nov 1868; died in La Baule, near Saint-Nazaire, 21 June 1940).

Note: This is an excerpt from a text written by Belinda Thomson (see copyright notice). All readers are invited to read the complete version of this text for it gives detailed information on Vuillard, his life, his technique and methods as well as the critics he received. There is also a complete bibliography which can be of great resources for those interested in learning more on the artist.

Early work, to 1900

He was brought up in Paris in modest circumstances, and his home life was closely involved with his mother’s and elder sister’s dressmaking work. He attended the Lycée Condorcet where his contemporaries included the musician Pierre Hermant and the writer Pierre Véber, as well as Maurice Denis. His closest friend was Ker-Xavier Roussel, and, on leaving school in 1885, Roussel encouraged Vuillard to join him at the studio of the painter Diogène Maillart (1840–1926), where they received the rudiments of artistic training. Vuillard began to frequent the Louvre and soon determined on an artistic career, breaking the family tradition of a career in the army.

In March 1886 Vuillard entered the Académie Julian where he was taught by Tony Robert-Fleury, and on his third attempt in July 1887 he passed the entrance examination to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. [...] His studies at the Ecole appear to have been spasmodic. In 1888 Vuillard began to keep a journal in which he made sketches of works he was studying in the Louvre and noted ideas about future paintings. From these sketches and from his earliest-known studies in oil, it is clear that Vuillard was drawn to the realistic study of still-life and domestic interiors. [...]

Paul Sérusier
(1864-1927)
Le Talisman, 1888
Musée d'Orsay, Paris

In 1889 Vuillard was persuaded by Maurice Denis to join a small dissident group of art students that had formed within the Académie Julian around Paul Sérusier and that referred to itself as the brotherhood of Nabis. Sérusier had communicated to his fellow students his knowledge of Synthetism following his contact with Gauguin in Brittany. By means of a small landscape painted under Gauguin’s instructions, known as The Talisman, Sérusier demonstrated the Synthetist method of painting [...]

Vuillard painted these experimental works, usually based on a subject from his immediate environment, on small pieces of board. [...] By 1892 he was using a more muted palette and had turned to family themes. Like other Nabi artists, especially Denis and Bonnard, Vuillard was influenced by the simplification and emphasis on expressive contour of 19th-century Japanese woodcuts.

Portrait of Lugné-Poë, 1891
Memorial Art Gallery of
the University of Rochester

The theatre was an important stimulus on his choice of subjects and his predilection for muted and mysterious light effects. His closest friend in the theatre was, however, the young actor–manager Aurélien Lugné-Poe who was largely responsible, through Paul Fort’s Théâtre d’Art and later through his own company L’Oeuvre, for introducing Symbolist drama to Paris. [...]

With other members of the Nabi group, Vuillard had exhibited small-scale works at the Le Barc de Boutteville gallery. Later in the 1890s he showed work at Ambroise Vollard’s [...]

An important factor in Vuillard’s development as a painter in the 1890s was his association with the Revue Blanche and his friendship with its editors, the Natanson brothers. [...]

1900–1914

The First Fruits, 1899
The Norton Simon Foundation

In the early years of the 20th century Vuillard began to show work at the Parisian gallery of the Bernheim-Jeune family and was later contracted to them. [...] Under his new commercial arrangements, Vuillard was encouraged to produce a wider range of work, landscapes and portraits as well as the decorative panels and small interiors typical of the 1890s. He found a new delight in landscape studies at this period, most of which were inspired by the seaside holidays in Normandy and Brittany [...]. Work was plentiful, and he was commissioned to paint more decorative panels for private clients. [...]

Théodore Duret, 1912
National Gallery of Art,
Washington, DC

In 1912 Vuillard received his first commission for a public building, a series of decorations in Paris on theatrical themes to ornament the foyer of the Comédie des Champs-Elysées. [...]

Portraiture became an increasingly dominant aspect of Vuillard’s work, and one of his most striking portraits of these years, Théodore Duret in his Study (1912; Washington, DC, N.G.A.), typifies Vuillard’s broad strategy. [...]

1915–1940

Interrogatoire d'un prisonnier, 1917
Musée d'Histoire Contemporaine, Paris

Vuillard’s established patterns of work were little affected by World War I. In 1914 he was called up to serve briefly as a railway look-out near Paris. He later served as a war artist, sketching soldiers on the front line at Gérardmer and producing a large painting recording the Interrogation of the Prisoner (1917; Paris, Mus. Hist. Contemp.). [...] When hostilities ceased, Vuillard concentrated mainly on portraiture, still undertaking decorative commissions occasionally[...]

Between 1923 and 1937 Vuillard painted four important portraits of his closest artist friends, all former members of the Nabi group: Roussel, Denis, Bonnard and Maillol, each of whom is shown at work in characteristic manner. The four portraits were shown at the Exposition Internationale of 1937 and bought with full-scale studies by the City of Paris (Paris, Petit Pal.). [...]

Vuillard was elected to the Institut de France in 1937, a mark of his country’s esteem, and in 1938 a major retrospective, selected by the artist’s friend Claude Roger-Marx, was held at the Pavillon de Marsan in Paris. Ill and severely distressed by the fall of France, Vuillard fled occupied Paris.


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