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In 1940, a week after the Germans occupied France, a popular painter died of a heart attack outside Paris in the embrace of his powerful patrons. An exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York explores the life of Edouard Vuillard, a non-Jewish artist, and the circle of Jewish tastemakers who supported him.
Born in 1868, Vuillard was part of a group of young post-Impressionist artists who called themselves Les Nabis — stemming from the word navi, which means "prophet" in Hebrew. Their Paris hangout was the Cafe Wepler, on Place de Clichy. Vuillard lived nearby, and he made paintings of a park, Place Vintimille, that he could see from his window.
Today, Place Vintimille looks much as it did when Vuillard painted it. Musee d'Orsay curator Sylvie Patry says the whole neighborhood is frozen in time. "It's so well-preserved that there are many, many film directors who like to set their films in the neighborhood," Patry explains. "... You just have to change the cars and the signs and the way people are dressed," and voila! You're smack in the middle of the 19th century.
Vuillard's long, painted panels of the park were commissioned by Henri Bernstein, a famous Jewish playwright of his day, who wanted decoration for his dining room. Vuillard did similar decorative panels for patron and editor Thadee Natanson and his wife, Misia Natanson.
The Natansons were prominent figures in French cultural life — especially Misia. In that corseted time, Misia was a free spirit, says exhibit curator Norman Kleeblatt: "Super smart, super cultivated, super charming" — not to mention super rich. As was Lucy Hessel, a later Vuillard patron and muse. Lucy was his friend, his inspiration, his lover and the wife of his close friend Jos Hessel, a noted art dealer.
On a recent afternoon at the Jewish Museum in New York, artist Lillian Milgram busily bent over her sketchbook, drawing some of Vuillard's works. "I find Vuillard extremely contemporary," she says. "... He blows me away with his flat areas and the way he breaks up the canvas, and he doesn't over-define."
She likes Vuillard's subtle, pastel hues — tans, soft siennas and blues — and the flat way he applies his colors. There's a Japanese influence, especially in his domestic interiors — with wallpapers and upholstery that's dense with two-dimensional patterns placed side by side. (Vuillard's mother was a dressmaker. He lived with her up until she died when he was 60 years old.) Kleeblatt says scraps of fabric in the mother's sewing room are reflected in the son's early works.
"These were plush interiors, where every square inch of the room was covered in some kind of pattern and texture," Kleeblatt says. "There is a density that almost explodes onto the surface of the painting."
Those intimate Vuillard interiors are claustrophobic with pattern. There are people in his rooms, but you have to hunt for them — that's one of the things that's so radical about Vuillard's work, Kleeblatt says. "His figures are the equal of any object. They are no more and no less."
"I don't do portraits," Vuillard once said. "I paint people in their surroundings." As he moved through life, from his mother's sewing room into the living rooms (and sometimes bedrooms) of his patrons, the surroundings became more and more luxurious. He's painting the look and texture of wealthy Jewish intellectual life at the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th. He's painting social status, psychology. And he's painting a world that will soon be destroyed by war.
As time went by from the 1890s into the 1900s, Vuillard wasn't all that productive — he didn't sell in the galleries, for instance, because he didn't have to, thanks to his wealthy patrons. "Vuillard was probably better known at the middle of the century, when he was one of those iconic artists that were part of the canon with Gauguin, Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso," Kleeblatt says. As the years went by, his name and work didn't get around as much as the others' did. Vuillard became cloistered, Kleeblatt says. "He got stuck. He got overshadowed."
Then the kind of "decorative" work that was his specialty went out of favor. By the time Vuillard died in 1940, Abstractionism was on the rise.
Today, though, in our jagged, fragmented times, the cozy domestic worlds on Vuillard's canvases are a refuge from the jumble. His rooms aren't noisy, they're safe — for a while, anyway. Many of his wealthy Jewish patrons would die at the hands of the Germans. Their solid rooms would soon be empty.
But Vuillard froze them in time, and his paintings are now on view at the Jewish Museum in New York. "Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940" is on display until Sept. 23.