Florek on Brown (2012)

Brown, Stephen. Édouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940. With an essay by Richard R. Brettell. New Haven: Yale UP and The Jewish Museum, New York, 2012. Pp. xiii + 130. ISBN: 978-0-300-17675-9

Stephen Brown's 2012 exhibition Édouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940 at The Jewish Museum, New York, and its accompanying catalogue significantly expand the art historical literature on the French artist. As a member of the avant-garde Nabi movement of the 1890s, Édouard Vuillard (1868-1940) is included within the nineteenth-century artistic canon, but his choice to continue painting in this style for the next forty years led many to condemn the artist's twentieth-century work as retrograde and anti-modern. Brown argues that this formalist perspective overlooks Vuillard's continued historical importance. By focusing on works surrounding Vuillard's close circle of patrons and friends, many of whom were Jewish, this catalogue analyzes Vuillard's oeuvre as an archive of early twentieth-century Parisian artistic society and patronage.

The catalogue features two essays: a biographical study by Brown and a contribution from Richard R. Brettell comparing Vuillard with Marcel Proust. Brown's essay "An Artist, His Patrons, and the Muses" builds on the scholarship of Gloria Groom and Guy Cogeval to highlight Vuillard's literary and artistic friendships and the patronage that emerged from these connections. As such, Brown emphasizes the visual strategies employed by Vuillard in service to this social network (37). Moving away from the flat planes of color favored by the Nabis, Vuillard's paintings feature densely layered patterns and textures that highlight the details of his patrons' Parisian apartments.

Brown identifies three muses who serve as benchmarks during the fifty years of Vuillard's career. The first is the artist's mother, of whom he declared, "Ma maman, c'est ma Muse" (2). Vuillard lived with his mother until her 1928 death, and Madame Vuillard and her corset-making workshop are the subjects of many paintings from the 1890s. The second muse is Misia Godebska Natanson, a gifted pianist and salonist. Her husband, Thadée Natanson, was the art critic for La Revue Blanche, published between 1889 and 1903 by Natanson and his brothers, sons of an émigré Polish-Jewish banking family. Through this connection Vuillard met in 1895 his most significant muse, Lucy Hessel, the wife of Jos Hessel, manager of a leading Parisian modern art gallery, the Bernheim-Jeune Galerie. Vuillard and Lucy Hessel remained romantically involved until his death. Through Hessel, Vuillard entered Parisian haute bourgeois society, where he became a highly sought-after portrait artist.

Insisting that he did not paint portraits so much as "people in their surroundings," Vuillard's paintings recover the lost cultural society of Paris during the first half of the twentieth century. Paintings such as Marcelle Aron (Madame Tristan Bernard) of 1914 record interior settings in such detail that scholars have drawn parallels between Vuillard's work and the similarly minutia-packed literature of Marcel Proust. Though they often appear in lists of each other's noteworthy acquaintances, Proust is considered an avant-garde master, while Vuillard is marginalized. In "Vuillard, Proust, and Portraiture," Brettell argues that Proust and Vuillard were consumed by the same task: the documentation of the elite world to which they had gained access (101). Employing the artist's four Kapferer family portraits as case studies, Brettell portrays the non-Jewish, petite bourgeois Vuillard as a "participant-observer" to the assimilated Jewish elite of Paris. A highly successful family, whose prosperity came from their own efforts, the Kapferers's glamorous lifestyle and artistic patronage are celebrated in Vuillard's portraits, which omit any references to family origins. This discretion was part of the artist's appeal for his patrons, and Brettell's close visual analysis demonstrates Vuillard's embeddedness within this culture.

The catalogue offers an important corrective to those who consider society portraiture too conservative to merit inclusion in twentieth-century surveys. Brown and Brettell demonstrate that Vuillard's portraiture had different goals and achievements than contemporary work by Picasso, Léger, or Duchamp. In addition to reproductions of paintings that rarely receive art historical attention, the publication includes an appendix with biographies of Vuillard's significant patrons, along with an index and selected bibliography. What remains troubling about both the exhibition and the catalogue, however, is the spare discussion of Vuillard's muses. Though Misia Natanson was the muse, Brown credits her husband with the transformation of Vuillard's career. Brettell includes a brief anecdote describing Madame Vuillard as a "den mother" to her son's artistic colleague, but Brown's discussion of Vuillard's mother is limited to a tantalizing footnote about her astute powers of observation. Fortunately, the authors have compiled bibliographic resources that will aide future research on these women, along with the society portraiture and patronage of early twentieth-century Paris.

Olivia Gruber Florek
Independent Scholar
Volume 41.3-4