Édouard Vuillard, The Hessel’s drawing room (Le salon des Hessel), c.1905
Modern life is a term so often associated with European art of the late nineteenth-century, particularly in France where the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists had placed it at the centre of their work. Its many manifestations created an eclectic mix of subjects and themes from Edgar Degas’s brothels, racetracks and dance classes to the systematised pointillism of Georges Seurat’s A Sunday afternoon on the island of La Grande Jatte, 1884.
Edouard Vuillard and Pierre Bonnard were among a group of painters who occupied the transitional period between the late iterations of Post-Impressionism and the more boisterous tide of Modernism heralded by Henri Matisse and the Fauves and the Cubism of Picasso and Braque. Vuillard and others emerged at a time in which art and modern life literally began to share the same space.
Perhaps the most obvious feature of Edouard Vuillard’s Le salon des Hessel, c.1905 is that it is not an easel picture, despite its ostensibly domestic subject and focus. Its scale indicates an emphatically different intent to Vuillard’s smaller, intimate depictions and vignettes of bourgeois interiors for which he is perhaps best known.
Vuillard made this large painting at a critical period in his career. Around 1900 Vuillard was involved with a circle of wealthy middle-class patrons, theatre personalities, artists, writers, collectors and art dealers. He had completed a number of important commissions for Alexandre and Thadée Natanson, co-founders and editors of La Revue Blanche — a literary and artistic journal published in Paris from 1891 to 1903 — and the wealthy industrialist, Paul Desmarais. The commissions were for large multi-panelled décorations specifically created for the apartments of these and other clients. Having achieved considerable recognition during the 1890s as perhaps the most outstanding talent of the group of painters known as the Nabis, these and numerous other decorative commissions defined a new direction for Vuillard as a painter–decorator — a role quite distinct from his established reputation as a Nabis and an Intimiste. This direction accorded with a reinstatement of decorative painting as an important and modern dimension of painting at the turn of the century as bourgeois wealth and an increasingly independent and commercialised art market became definitive aspects of modern urban life.
The Nabis included artists and friends, Ker-Xavier Roussel, Maurice Denis, Paul Ranson, Pierre Bonnard and importantly the older artist, Paul Serusier. The group met through their studies at the Académie Julian in the late 1880s and derived their name from the Hebrew word for prophet or seer. Serusier was the mentor figure in the group who had worked with Paul Gauguin in Pont Aven in Brittany during a summer holiday. From Gauguin he formulated his particular ‘synthetist’ methodology which, through exaggeration of line, simplified design and pure colour, moved beyond verisimilitude and imitation of appearances. Serusier advocated a symbolist, anti-naturalist approach to painting in which sensations and essences counted for more than mere optical realism. While Vuillard was less inclined to align himself too closely with the theoretical tenets of the group, the paintings he produced from the early 1890s occupy a unique position within turn-of the-century French painting. His intimate observations of domestic life in his own home with his mother, visitors and family, his friends and colleagues and the bourgeois milieu of patrons, dealers and collectors, were the vehicles for richly patterned but restrained paintings which captured a specific expression of Parisian modernity.
This mood of inward reflection in preference to optical representation was in step with a number of contemporary writers and poets. Certainly Stephané Mallarmé (1842–1898) had established a new poetic paradigm in which phonetic syntax and the physical arrangement of words on the space of the page, broke new ground in his attempt to arrive at ‘essences’ — a poetic space beyond the conventional parameters of descriptive or narrative verse. Marcel Proust famously delved into the invisible universe of sensation and memory and the Belgian writer, Maurice Maeterlinck sort a mystical, symbolist conception of life through his plays and later philosophical works. In Norway, Henrick Ibsen probed and dismantled the web of bourgeois morality and manners in his plays to reveal the vulnerabilities and deceptions of social conventions. Tristan Bernard, the bearded playwright depicted in Vuillard's Les salon des Hessel and a regular acquaintance of the Hessels and their circle, wrote much lighter but still lively insights and perspectives on the lives and foibles of the French bourgeoisie. The characteristic spirit of these and other writers of the time ran parallel with the attention that the Nabis, the Symbolists, the Intimistes and Vuillard brought to their perceptions and pictorial exploration of the mundane, domestic and familiar.
Vuillard’s personal circumstances also changed significantly during the period as one long-standing relationship made way for another. His relationship with Thadée Natanson’s wife, Misia played a less significant role following her divorce and Lucie Hessel became his new muse, model, confidant and speculatively, his lover. The relationship was companionable, dependable and commercially advantageous for Vuillard. It was conducted openly with what Guy Cogeval, curator of the 2003 exhibition of Vuillard’s work at the National Gallery of Washington called, ‘the indifferent acquiescence’ of her husband.(1)
This circle of patrons, acquaintances and friends in which Vuillard moved, regularly conducted gatherings and soirees in their large Parisian apartments which housed substantial art collections. Josse and Gaston Bernheim and their second cousin, Jos Hessel were an important part of this milieu. The Bernheim brothers had taken over their father’s (Alexandre) gallery which had successfully marketed the works of Courbet and the Barbizon school as well as Impressionist and more progressive modern work by younger artists such as Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard and Felix Vallotton. They re-named it the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery. Other dealers such as Ambroise Vollard and Paul Durand-Ruel were also competing in an expanding market for collecting which was moving away from direct patronage.
The Bernheim’s cousin Lucie was wife of the gallery’s manager Jos and in 1900 Villard met her while vacationing at the Vallotton’s summer residence in Switzerland. Lucie Hessel was the subject of many drawings and paintings by Vuillard and remained a powerful influence in his life and art for almost 40 years. She provided entree to social and professional circles for the artist while her husband Jos assumed the role of Vuillard’s main dealer. Vuillard became a regular visitor to the Hessel’s rue de Rivoli apartment in Paris where he painted Lucie in a variety of poses and situations, more often alone, but occasionally in the company of her husband, Jos.
Les salon des Hessel depicts a gathering in the Hessel’s Paris apartment. It is painted in the manner and medium that Vuillard employed increasingly after the late 1890s. His production of theatre sets and stage designs for Aurélien Lugnè-Poe’s Théâtre de l’Œuvre in the early 1890s informed the tableau-like interiors after 1900. Peinture á la colle or distemper was Vuillard’s preferred technique and medium for many of the decorative panels and large interiors, a technique he had first used in the preparation of theatre sets. Its matt, chalky finish is the result of pigment suspended in a glue medium which allows for rapid, fluid application and drying. Its flat finish approximates the fresco mural technique which enhances the decorative potential of the image by emphasising surface and design over tonal modelling of form. The technique also makes deliberate and effective use of the ground or the canvas tone in the same way as Vuillard’s smaller Intimiste paintings utilised the reddish-brown tones of the cardboard support.
The scale of Les salon des Hessel dictates a viewing distance of some metres in order to appreciate its particular, almost voyeuristic, perspective. To modern eyes, what appears to be a ‘snapshot’ quality in much of Vuillard’s work is a result of his acquiring a Kodak box camera in 1897 which he used in a candid fashion to capture gatherings and holiday occasions. Only at a distance, does the loosely brushed palette of olive greens, greys, violets and the neutral tone of un-primed canvas coalesce to evoke the relaxed tableau of chatter, conversation and intimacy in Madame Hessel’s salon. The British painter Walter Sickert, who held Vuillard in high esteem, once remarked on the artist’s ‘scrawled splashes of distemper’ but added that at a distance, any further brushstrokes would have been ‘tautology and a distraction’.(2)
In a sense Vuillard opens a door, both metaphorically and literally, onto a scene of bourgeois leisure in which figures are articulated purely in terms of tonal relationships and contrasts. Madame Hessel is placed in the foreground on a couch in casual conversation with a figure cast in shadow. Two robust figures dominate the left side of the panel, including the bearded Tristan Bernard who coined the nickname ‘The dragon’ for Lucie Hessel, who he saw as a domineering element in Vuillard’s life and career. A table lamp illuminates a mid-ground group of guests in pale yellow light. The furthest doorway frames a single figure. Vuillard’s loosely brushed marks are often ambiguous in their description of form. A scurry of brushstrokes in the centre of the panel on the floor could well refer to the Hessel’s collie dog, ‘Charley’.
The question of finish and completeness is often central to the consideration of Vuillard’s work. Passages that may at once appear to be incomplete may also, on further looking, merge seamlessly into the whole. Vuillard’s unique achievement as a painter was to capture the provisional nature of seeing.
David Burnett, Artlines, no.3, 2009, pp.32–33.
This is the fourth article in a series focusing on selected works in the Queensland Art Gallery's international collection.
1 Guy Cogeval, ‘Backward glances’ in Édouard Vuillard, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2003, p.28.
2 Belinda Thompson, Vuillard, Phaidon, Oxford, 1988, p.76.