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Edouard Vuillard

French painter, draughtsman and printmaker

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

Edouard Vuillard was born in Cuiseaux, Saône-et-Loire, 11 Nov 1868 and died in La Baule, near Saint-Nazaire, 21 June 1940.

1. Life and work

2. Working methods and technique

3. Character and personality

4. Critical reception and posthumous reputation

5. Bibliography


1. Life and work

(i) 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. He was taught by Jean-Léon Gérôme for a brief period of about six weeks in 1888, but 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. He was particularly attracted to the 17th-century Dutch artists and to the works of Chardin in La Caze collection.

Paul Sérusier
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 (Paris, Mus. d’Orsay; for illustration see Sérusier, paul), Sérusier demonstrated the Synthetist method of painting; this entailed a reliance on memory and imagination rather than direct observation, and the application of forms and colours reduced to their simplest as equivalents to sensations and emotions received from nature. At first Vuillard was reluctant to accept the idea that the painter should not seek to reproduce realistically what he saw, although during 1890 he made his first bold experiments in Synthetist painting.

Vuillard painted these experimental works, usually based on a subject from his immediate environment, on small pieces of board. The earliest were painted in bright, often arbitrary colours with the subject reduced to its essential components; tones and hues were combined and balanced to produce a dense pattern-like surface. By 1892 he was using a more muted palette and had turned to family themes. La Causette (Edinburgh, N.G. Mod. A.; see fig. 1), which depicts his mother and sister seated in an interior, is typical of this phase: painted predominantly in browns, it conveys the strong aura of mystery characteristic of much of Vuillard’s early work.

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

Like other Nabi artists, especially Denis and Bonnard, Vuillard was influenced by the simplification and emphasis on expressive contour of 19th-century Japanese woodcuts. The theatre was an important stimulus on his choice of subjects and his predilection for muted and mysterious light effects. He was courted early on by such theatrical patrons as the actor Coquelin Cadet and by the theatre director André Antoine. 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. Vuillard not only attended many of the latter’s rehearsals and performances of plays by Maeterlinck, Ibsen, Strindberg and others but often painted scenery and designed costumes and programmes. Vuillard was a founder-member of Lugné-Poe’s Théâtre de l’Oeuvre, which opened in 1893.

La Cuisinière from the portfolio
Paysages et Intérieurs, 1899.
Lithograph, printed in color
useum of Modern Art, New York

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; in 1897 the latter commissioned him to produce a series of colour lithographs on the theme Landscape and Interiors (1899; New York, MOMA).

Woman in a Striped Dress, 1895
National gallery of Art, Washington
(the model is Misia Natanson)

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. The editor-in-chief and art critic was Thadée Natanson, and he and his wife, Misia (a frequent model during these years), became close friends of Vuillard.

In 1892 Vuillard received a commission to paint panels (Paris, Desmarais priv. col.) for Paul Desmarais, a cousin of the Natansons; this was followed by a major decorative commission in 1894 from the wealthiest of the Natanson brothers, Alexandre, to paint nine panels for the dining-room of a grand mansion on the Avenue du Bois. Vuillard chose the theme of Public Gardens and produced an amalgam and imaginative reconstruction of his observations in the Tuileries or the Bois de Boulogne, for example Little Girls Playing and The Interrogation (both Paris, Mus. d’Orsay; see fig. 2), and the figures of nannies seated gossiping while overseeing their charges. Although planned as a decorative ensemble, the panels were later dispersed, and the eight that survive (one was lost during World War II) are now housed in different museums (five panels, Paris, Mus. d’Orsay; Cleveland, OH, Mus. A.; Houston, TX, Mus. F.A.; Brussels, Mus. A. Mod.).

The Public Gardens, 1894 (distemper on canvas)
The Conversation
Musée d'Orsay, Paris
  The Red Parasol
Musée d'Orsay, Paris
  The Nursemaids
Musée d'Orsay, Paris
  The Questioning
Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Young Girls Playing
Musée d'Orsay, Paris
  The Two Schoolboys
Musées Royaux des
Beaux-Arts de
Belgique, Brussels
  Under the Trees
Cleveland Museum of Art
  First Steps
Tom James Company/
Oxxford Clothes

Those eight panels can be admired at the Edouard Vuillard Exhibit
organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
from January 19, 2003 to April 20, 2003

In 1896 Vuillard was commissioned by Dr Henri Vaquez to paint four panels for a library, Figures and Interiors (Paris, Petit Pal.), and further important decorative commissions followed: two panels in 1898 for the novelist Jean Schopfer, Figures in the Garden of Le Relais, Villeneuve-sur-Yonne (priv. col., see 1954 exh. cat., pp. 66–7), and two in 1899 for Adam Natanson, Landscapes—Ile-de-France (Chicago, IL, A. Inst.; Pasadena, CA, Norton Simon Mus.).

(ii) 1900–14

Madam Hessel on the Sofa 1900-01
National Museums & Galleries
on Merseyside, England

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. Lucy Hessel, wife of Jos Hessel, a partner in the firm, became a close friend, confidante and model, and Vuillard’s time was spent increasingly in the Hessels’ entourage, which included successful actors and playwrights as well as wealthy business people.

Place Vintimille, 1911
Five-panel screen
National Gallery of Art,

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 that he spent with the Hessels. Work was plentiful, and he was commissioned to paint more decorative panels for private clients: between 1908 and 1910 he produced a series of eight views of Streets of Paris (New York, Guggenheim; priv. col.), acquired by the playwright Henry Bernstein, and between 1911 and 1913 an extensive decorative scheme for the vast seaside villa of the Bernheim-Jeune family at Villers-sur-Mer.

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, a theatre within the new Théâtre des Champs-Elysées (inaugurated in 1913). The two principal panels represent Classical Comedy (a scene from Molière’s Le Malade imaginaire) and Modern Comedy (a scene from Tristan Bernard’s Le Petit Café).

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

Portraiture became an increasingly dominant aspect of Vuillard’s work, and he found no shortage of sitters; many were fashionable members of the beau monde, others were intimate friends and professional associates. 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, probably influenced by the theories of the late 19th-century Realist critic Edmond Duranty. He effectively amalgamated the role of portrait painter with that of painter of interiors, portraying his models in domestic settings characteristic of them and often, in the process, extending the psychological penetration of the portrait. In the case of Duret, the writer is shown in his study, surrounded by the books and papers that are the tools of his profession and by other paintings and portraits acquired over the years. Whereas during his Nabi phase Vuillard had simplified and pared down his vision to a flattened pattern and had frequently attracted criticism for imprecision, from c. 1900 he treated space in a more three-dimensional way. Typically he set his model well back into the picture space and in some instances lavished almost as much attention on the familiar objects and minutiae that make up the interior setting as on the distinguishing features of his sitter.

(iii) 1915–40

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.). In 1916 he was commissioned by Thadée Natanson, director of the Lazare-Lévy munitions factory in Lyon, to record in two panels (Troyes, Mus. A. Mod.), as part of a decorative scheme, the assembly-line work at the factory. When hostilities ceased, Vuillard concentrated mainly on portraiture, still undertaking decorative commissions occasionally. The last of his major schemes for a private client was the series At the Louvre (1921–2; priv. col., see Thomson, pls 125-7), four panels and two overdoors inspired by different aspects of the Louvre’s collections. These were destined for the house of a Swiss friend whom Vuillard had met during the war. It is the only example of the artist’s private decorative schemes to remain intact, although not in situ.

The Park of the
Château des Clayes, 1934
Private collection

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.). In the same year Vuillard painted a decorative panel, again on the theme of Comedy, for the inauguration of the Théâtre de Chaillot in Paris. The panel depicts characters from Shakespeare and Molière, in a bucolic setting inspired by the park of the Château des Clayes, the Hessels’ country home near Versailles. A final major project was an enormous mural (in situ) for the new League of Nations building in Geneva, the Palais des Nations, an ambitious and courageous undertaking but, given the traditional allegorical theme, scarcely one that Vuillard was ideally equipped to execute. He sought inspiration in the art of the past, particularly that of Eustache Le Sueur, an artist he had long admired.

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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2. Working methods and technique

At the outset of his career Vuillard worked in conventional media, usually oil on canvas, exploiting the luminous qualities of oil paint in a series of tonal still-lifes. In experimenting with the ideas of his Nabi friends, however, and in emphasizing the flat decorative qualities of his painting, he began to use cardboard, a more solid absorbent base, and cultivated a matt surface, using very dry oil paint and often allowing the light buff or grey colour of the ground to play a vital part in the establishment of relationships of colour and tone. Many of his early Nabi studies were subsequently varnished by others, a practice Vuillard avoided, thereby losing much of their intended muted texture. Around 1890 his drawing style underwent a similar reductive process to his painting, and for a time he deployed simple shapes and strong silhouette-like or cloisonnist outlines.

In a number of his paintings of the mid-1890s, Vuillard’s interest in the patterns and textures of fabrics, wallpapers and carpets and his avoidance of indications of depth produced a dense overall effect and spatial ambiguity. Good examples of such an effect are Large Interior with Six Figures (1897; Zurich, Ksthaus) and Misia and Vallotton in the Dining-room, Rue Saint Florentin (New York, William Kelly Simpson priv. col., see fig. 3). After the turn of the century, however, possibly as a result of his working increasingly from photographs, he returned to a more conventional use of perspective and lightened his palette, concentrating in an almost impressionistic manner on luminosity. His later drawing style became more nervously linear, and when working on a portrait, for example, he patiently built up a dossier of sketches recording fragments and details that were incorporated into the whole at the final stage.

Vuillard is recognized as an artist of great technical expertise. For most of his career, in preference to oil, he used the difficult medium of distemper or peinture à la colle, a water-based medium mixed with glue that dried quickly and left a matt, opaque surface. He had first used distemper in scenery painting in the early 1890s and found its properties suitable for his large decorative panels. After c. 1900 most of Vuillard’s painting in all genres was done in this medium. Because of distemper’s rapid drying time, he was able to build up layer upon layer of paint, so that certain areas of his canvases are thickly encrusted while others are less worked. Over time the distemper has generally hardened. In cases where Vuillard had left insufficient time for the drying process, mixed up a faulty balance of glue and pigment or, as frequently happened with his decorative panels, reworked a canvas after an interval, his paintings have suffered damage from cracking and flaking and pose problems of conservation. For drawing Vuillard particularly favoured pastel after 1900 and again he made full use of the subtle delicacy of this difficult medium.

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3. Character and personality

Vuillard was a likeable man who inspired affection in those close to him. He was of a reserved and quiet rather than extrovert personality, though capable of expressing pent-up emotion in sudden violent outbursts. He was suspicious of some of the more flamboyant of his contemporaries, such as Gauguin, preferring to associate himself with the achievements of such artists as Monet, Degas or Puvis de Chavannes. He weighed his words carefully and thought deeply about his art, as can be seen from his exchange of letters with his theoretically minded friend Maurice Denis in 1898, published in Denis’s Journal. Beset by moral scruples, he frequently agonized over his personal conduct, as is revealed in his journal. Although Vuillard was a bachelor and lived with his mother until her death in 1928, he was very much a part of the Roussel family, lovingly watching and recording the development of their children. He also evidently enjoyed the company of women and had several close female friends; Lucy Hessel, his ‘dragon’ as his mother referred to her, played a particularly influential role in his life. Women and children were the main inspirations for his figure paintings; indeed Vuillard was somewhat puzzled to note this personal predilection in his diary of 1894, quizzing himself on why he tended to envisage men only as sources for comic images while seeing women as sources of beauty.

Despite the successes later in his career, he continued to live modestly; from 1908 he occupied a succession of apartments overlooking Place Vintimille (now Place Adolphe-Max), a quiet residential square near the Montmartre cemetery. Vuillard’s interiors, approached from a realist perspective, are a faithful and telling record both of his own private circumstances and of the changing styles of living in the period during which he worked. Some critics feel that his art was detrimentally affected by his introduction through the Hessels and their grand bourgeois friends to a world of ease, prosperity and sometimes vulgar ostentation; they argue that the essence of his work lay in its sensitivity to the scrubbed, frugal interiors of the Parisian petite bourgeoisie, settings associated with the artist’s mother. In his diary of 1893, Vuillard asked himself the question: ‘Why is it in the familiar places that the mind and the sensibility find the greatest degree of genuine novelty?’ In his later portrait work Vuillard was notorious for changing and omitting nothing, recording the most trivial of details and the most garish of colour combinations. While occasionally the paintings may seem overelaborated and uninspired as a result, he was also capable of approaching an irksome commission with an ironic or at least mischievous eye by which he achieved a telling picture.

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4. Critical reception and posthumous reputation

Although when first exhibited at Le Barc de Boutteville’s gallery the works of the Nabi group as a whole were considered outrageous, daub-like and incomprehensible by many critics, Vuillard tended to escape the worst attacks and was quickly singled out for praise by such critics as Roger Marx, Thadée Natanson and Léon-Paul Fargue. In the climate of Symbolism, Vuillard’s ability to infuse a mundane subject with an atmosphere of mystery had a special appeal. He was much admired for his abundant natural talents by such contemporary artists as Denis, Signac and Sickert. Vuillard, however, also found a sympathetic audience among writers: he was admired by the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, and his large-scale decorations, exhibited at the Salon d’Automne of 1905, were highly praised by André Gide. Seen against the gathering momentum of developments in 20th-century art for which he felt little sympathy (Fauvism, Cubism and Surrealism), Vuillard’s style seemed to settle as a kind of latter-day Impressionism, and he became accepted as an independent member of the establishment. By the 1920s he could be accused of conservatism by the more avant-garde critics of the day, such as André Lhote, who chided him for the superficiality of attending to modish material details in his portraits and interiors. By the time of his 1938 retrospective, the critic Claude Roger-Marx (the exhibition selector) was of the opinion that Vuillard’s early works, before he was inundated with commissions for demanding clients, had been his greatest achievements. This preference for the early experimental work, a syndrome of modernist criticism, affects the work of many artists who, like Vuillard, made the transition from the avant-garde to the establishment.

Given his particular sensitivity to the study of everyday life, of domestic interiors and their inhabitants, Vuillard has frequently been categorized as an intimiste, belonging to the realist domestic tradition in painting that had its roots in the Netherlands in the 17th century and that was carried forward in France by such artists as Watteau, Chardin and Corot. Since Vuillard’s death, his qualities as a colourist and an experimenter in tone have continued to be celebrated. The mysterious magic of his early interiors continues to hold the widest appeal, while his considerable achievements in the sphere of decorative painting are beginning to be more fully appreciated.

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Unpublished Sources

Journal, 48 vols, Paris, Institut de France



  • J. Salomon: Vuillard, témoignage (Paris, 1945)
  • A. Chastel: Vuillard, 1868-1940 (Paris, 1946)
  • C. Roger-Marx: Vuillard: His Life and Work (London, 1946)
  • --: L'Oeuvre gravé de Vuillard (Paris, 1948)
  • J. Salomon: Auprès de Vuillard (Paris, 1953)
  • --: Vuillard admiré (Lausanne, 1961) S. Preston: Vuillard (New York, 1971/ R London, 1985) [good pls]
  • L. Oakley: Edouard Vuillard (New York, 1981)
  • B. Thomson: Vuillard (Oxford, 1988) [good pls; contains new inf. about the artist's life and work based on extracts from the artist's j.]
  • G. Gloom: E. Vuillard: Painter-Decorator: Patrons and Projects, 1892-1912 (London, 1993)

Specialist studies

  • A. Chastel: 'Vuillard et Mallarmé', La Nef (26 Jan 1947), pp. 13-25
  • J. Salomon and A. Vaillant: 'Vuillard et son Kodak', L'Oeil, 100 (1963), pp. 14-25, 61
  • R. Bacou: 'Décors d'appartements au temps des Nabis', A. France, iv (1964), pp. 190-205
  • J. Dugdale: 'Vuillard the Decorator', Apollo, lxxxi/36 (1965), pp. 94-101; lxxxvi/68 (1967), pp. 272-7
  • M. Kozloff: 'Four Short Essays on Vuillard', Artforum, x/4 (1971), pp. 64-71
  • G. Mauner: 'Vuillard's Mother and Sister Paintings and the Symbolist Theatre', Artscanada, xxviii/162-3 (1971-2), pp. 124-6
  • C. Frèches-Thory: 'Jardins publics de Vuillard', Rev. Louvre, 4 (1979), pp. 305-12
  • J. Wilson Bareau: 'Edouard Vuillard et les princes Bibesco', Rev. A. [Paris] (1986), pp. 37-46

Exhibition catalogues

  • Exposition E. Vuillard (exh. cat., ed. C. Roger-Marx; Paris, Mus. A. Déc., 1938)
  • Edouard Vuillard (exh. cat., ed. A. Carnduff-Ritchie; New York, MOMA, 1954/R 1969)
  • Bonnard, Vuillard et les Nabis (1888-1903) (exh. cat., Paris, Mus. N. A. Mod., 1955)
  • Edouard Vuillard, Ker-Xavier Roussel (exh. cat., ed. P. Georgel; Paris, Mus. Orangerie, 1968) [good illus.]
  • Vuillard (exh. cat., ed. J. Russell; Toronto, A.G. Ont.; San Francisco, CA Pal. Legion of Honor; Chicago, IL, A. Inst.; 1971; rev. with intro. by J. Russell and extracts from important sel. texts by Vuillard's contemps, London, 1971)
  • Vuillard Interiors (exh. cat., ed. G. Shackelford and E. Easton; Houston, TX, Mus. F.A.; Washington, DC, Phillips Col.; 1989)
  • Vuillard (exh. cat., ed. B. Thomson; London, S. Bank Cent., 1991)


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