Permanent Collections: Surface Praise for Vuillard


Many years ago I saw an exhibition called "Intimate Interiors of Edouard Vuillard" at the Brooklyn Museum. This show brought together about 75 paintings of the artist's domestic life in turn-of-the-last-century France. I hadn't previously seen much of Vuillard's work--just an occasional glance at the handful of his paintings at the Museum of Modern Art or the Metropolitan Museum. So the Brooklyn exhibition offered a welcome introduction.


As I examined Vuillard's depictions of family and friends engaged in mundane activities such as sewing, sweeping, and reading, I remember thinking, "How tedious." Their proper, 19th-century clothes and their stuffy rooms, often decorated in browns and grays and other dull hues, seemed stifling. When I left the museum after an hour or two, I was glad to step out into the energetic air of modern-day New York City.


Yet I wanted to go back. Vuillard's playful paint dabs and brushstrokes, along with his clever design and color schemes, had translated his oppressive three-dimensional world into a fascinating two-dimensional realm. I expected that whenever I returned to the exhibition, these marvelous formal feats would distract me from Vuillard's tedious subjects.


I never did make it back to the show in Brooklyn. But in the years since, I have seen Vuillard's work in many other places and have come to regard him (as many others have) as a master of early modern art.


A few museums in the U.S have splendid examples of Vuillard's prowess. MOMA has Interior, Mother and Sister of the Artist, Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC, owns Child at a Window, Woman Sewing before a Garden Window is in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Metropolitan owns Madame Vuillard Sewing by the Window, rue Truffaut.


Any one of these paintings could be the subject of this post, but for this edition of "Permanent Collections" I've decided to discuss the Saint Louis Art Museum's K.X. Roussel Reading (seen above) not only because it, too, illustrates well what I love about Vuillard, but also because I'm fond of the St. Louis Art Museum.


I have visited SLAM (some acronym) just once, in the late 1990s when I lived in Chicago. As with most museums at that time, I could not access SLAM's collection online. So before my visit, all I knew about the museum was what an art history professor had told me (the museum owns many works by Max Beckmann) and what I had seen in one of my Matisse books (SLAM owns his Bathers with a Turtle).


As a result, I spent a discovery-filled afternoon at the Saint Louis Art Museum, impressed by the extent of its collection, which includes--among many other great paintings--Hans Holbein's Mary, Lady Guildford, Georges Braque's The Blue Mandolin, The Transformed Dream by Giorgio De Chirico, and K.X. Roussel Reading.

Like most Vuillard paintings, K.X. Roussel Reading is relatively small (17 1/4 x 21 1/2 in.). Painted in 1904, it shows Roussel* crouched over a table engrossed in something. Although the title suggests that he's reading, he could be sketching--SLAM's website indicates that the work has also been called Kerr-Xavier Roussel Sketching and Roussel in his Studio.


Whatever his activity, Roussel's back seems to blend with the mantlepiece behind him. This merging of figure and background undercuts the illusion of realistic, three-dimensional space achieved elsewhere in the painting, and is a motif seen in other Vuillard paintings from the 1890s to the first few years of the 20th century (see, for example, Interior with Mother and Child at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco and Interior, Mother and Sister of the Artist at MOMA)


This spatial ambiguity, which Vuillard borrowed from the Impressionists, encourages viewers not only to look at a painting as an illusory opening to a world beyond the surface of the picture, but also to consider its physical presence as paint applied to canvas. Thus, the area of black at the center of the picture can be viewed both as Roussel's jacket and the fireplace behind him, and as an odd shape of black paint.


Ever since the Brooklyn exhibition, I have eagerly accepted Vuillard's literally formal invitation to approach his work in two ways, and I have thereby been able to overlook what I consider his stuffy subject matter. So when I look at K.X. Roussel Reading, I savor the way Vuillard modulates his grays: from a cool gray in the upper part of the canvas (the wall of Roussel's studio) to a warmer tone toward the bottom (in Roussel's floor).


I also appreciate the contrast between depth, most evident in the space around the crisscrossed legs of Roussel's table, and the areas of flatness scattered throughout the painting. I'm particularly impressed with Vuillard's choice to juxtapose that tangibly three-dimensional area with the indecipherable form directly left of the table. I can only read that enigmatic shape as a small assemblage of two-dimensional abstract forms. I also applaud the reddish-brown hue that Vuillard sprinkles in among those abstract forms and on the mantle shelf. They bring additional warmth and vitality to the painting.


I could discuss so much more about this painting--for example, more about Vuillard's deft distribution of values and hues; or about the proliferation of straight lines and right angles vs. the scarcity of curves; or about the centrality of the black shape made by Roussel's back and fireplace, how it acts like a target that immediately attracts the viewer's eyes. If I continue, this post will be much longer, and perhaps tedious itself.

So I will stop here with my praise. Perhaps I will revisit K.X. Roussel Reading and Vuillard with another post after my next visit to St. Louis (whenever that might be). Then I'll be able to write with memories of a personal encounter with the work fresh in my mind.

*Ker Xavier Roussel was Vuillard's friend and a fellow painter. Although his work has never achieved the same recognition as Vuillard's, museums such as the Art Institute of Chicago and the Hermitage Museum in Russia own some of his paintings.