NEW YORK (Reuters) - A new exhibition, the first major show in New York of works by Edouard Vuillard for more than 20 years, reveals the life of the French artist and reappraises the significance of his 20th century work.
“Edouard Vuillard, A Painter and his Muses, 1890-1940,” which opens at The Jewish Museum on May 4 and runs through September 23, includes 50 key paintings, as well as prints, photographs and documents.
A quarter of the paintings have never been exhibited publicly in America before.
Vuillard’s artistic career began in La Belle Epoque from 1890 to the end of World War One, and ended with the German occupation of France. His focus was the acute observation of society.
“This is one of those shows that has points of interest for a wide audience. One really can’t understand France in the first half of the 20th century without having some knowledge of Vuillard’s portraiture,” said Stephen Brown, assistant curator at The Jewish Museum.
Brown said there was also tremendous interest in Vuillard as part of a more inclusive reappraisal of how people think about the 20th century and art.
Vuillard is best known for the paintings and prints he did in the last decade of the 1800s when he was part of an avant-garde group of artists known as the Nabis, which means prophets in Hebrew or the enlightened in Arabic.
Two works in the exhibit from his Nabi period are “Woman in a Striped Dress, from The Album,” done in 1895, and “Misia and Vallotton at Villeneuve,” completed four years later.
Brown said Vuillard’s work after 1900 was frequently viewed as a retreat into conservatism. Although he worked during a period that spanned Impressionism, Cubism, Expressionism and abstraction, the artist remained committed to the techniques and subjects of his youth.
“Vuillard’s visual language developed from many different sources and his style and approach was quite varied. Sometimes he painted something just because he loved to do it on a spontaneous level and in other works he searched for that finished perfection, such as the Bloch family portrait, ‘Madame Jean Bloch and Her Children,’ which is being shown in the United States for the first time,” Brown said.
The exhibit also explores the crucial role Vuillard’s patrons, dealers and muses played in his life and art. His supporters, most of whom were Jewish, provided artistic inspiration and financial support and he painted them in their environments.
Although Vuillard’s paintings of domestic interiors are striking, his portraits often capture the interior of the person as well as the room in which he or she sits.
Art dealer Sam Salz, who became a conduit for Vuillard in the United States, is depicted in a striking pastel work, done in 1939, called “Portrait of Sam Salz.”
In the painting “Luncheon at Les Clayes, 1935-38,” Vuillard’s sense of scale and free, energetic execution celebrate a world in which society and art are one.
Vuillard’s supporters included the Natanson brothers, founders and editors of the culture journal “La Revue Blanche.” Composer Claude Debussy, poets Paul Verlaine and Guillaume Apollinaire and the writer Marcel Proust were among its contributors.
Like artists Pierre Bonnard and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Vuillard spent summers at the home of Thadee and Misia Natanson where he developed an intense, romantic attachment to Misia.
But while Misia Natanson remained a friend, Vuillard’s relationship with Lucy Hessel, the wife of his patron Jos Hessel, developed into a liaison that lasted for about 40 years, until his death.
Lucy Hessel became the favored subject of many of his works and she appears in 10 of the works in the exhibit.
Reporting By Ellen Freilich; editing by Patricia Reaney