by Roderick Conway Morris

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Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Woman Reading in the Reeds, Saint-Jacut-de-la-Mer, by Édouard Vuillard, 1909

The Poetry of the Everyday

By Roderick Conway Morris
BATH 16 August 2019


'Why is it always in the familiar places that the mind and the sensibility find the greatest degree of genuine novelty?' wrote the 24-year-old Édouard Vuillard in one of the journals he had begun to keep as an art student. And indeed, while other painters roved the wider world in search of new subjects, it was familiar places that Vuillard was already making the focus of his art.

His early inspirations were the scenes of domestic life depicted by the 17th-century Dutch masters and the 18th-century French painter Chardin. His fascination with interiors was also shared by his fellow members of the Nabis (Prophets) group, Bonnard and Vallotton.

But Vuillard's domestic circumstances were unusual and his manner of capturing them utterly distinctive. Vuillard spent much of his life sharing apartments with his widowed mother and sister, both dressmakers, a seemingly narrow petit-bourgeois environment, yet one in which he found a wealth of inspiration. Among the most fruitful periods of his career were the 1890s and early 1900s, when the young artist was developing his vision and style, and this period is now the subject of a charming exhibition, curated by Chris Stephens, 'Édouard Vuillard: The Poetry of the Everyday.'

The world of Vuillard's small paintings is almost entirely populated with women. And his engagement with this world extends to sharing their love of rich dress fabrics and details of interior decoration, including wallpapers. The family moved seven times between 1887 and 1908, to different rented apartments, so Vuillard constantly encountered new settings to depict. Sometimes the effect of an abundance of varied patterns is almost overwhelming. But amusingly on occasion, in a picture of his sister here, for example, the merging of dress fabric and wallpaper, leads the sitter, as though camouflaged, almost to disappear into the background.

Vuillard's decorative talents soon led to his being recruited for work in the theatre, painting scenery and designing costumes and programmes. And his sensibilities were ideally attuned to an exciting new age in drama, when the latest works of Ibsen and Strindberg, with powerful female characters playing central roles, were being premiered in Paris. At the same time, Vuillard's own paintings often took on an intriguing theatrical air, both in subject matter and lighting effects.

The artist never married but had many close women friends. He was taken up by leading figures in the art world, some of whose wives became models and muses, among them Lucy Hessel, wife of his dealer. The Hessel family invited Vuillard to share family holidays in Normandy and Brittany and one of the most charming mementoes of these is of Lucy: 'Woman Reading in the Reeds, Saint-Jacut-de-la-Mer'.

Édouard Vuillard: The Poetry of the Everyday; Holburne Museum, Bath;

24 May -15 September 2019

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023