Edouard Vuillard, Exquisite Soul

Edouard Vuillard, The Terrace at Vasouy, the Garden, 1901, reworked 1935, National Gallery, London

Edouard Vuillard has long been one of my favorite painters, and my affection for him has never wavered since I first fell in love with his work at the Phillips Collection and National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. when I was in high school. My appreciation for his has only deepened over time.  And it has always retained its complete mystery.

The exchange below is drawn from the Conversations on the Dresden Gallery between the “surrealists” Jean Cocteau and Louis Aragon, which I find so interesting because it shows the rootedness and deep connection as well as deep respect between the artists of the 20th Century radical and caustic avant-garde and what are considered more the traditional and quite artists like Monet, Bonnard, and Vuillard.

Jean Cocteau: Unfortunately, greatness of soul has little to do with greatness of mind. They admired Zola’s lyricism when it took the form of heroism during the Dreyfus affair. In my view his spiritual beauty shone out in the Dreyfus affair and that is what they deny in his books.

Louis Aragon: In any case, men like Zola represented the spirit of their age at its highest level. Of course there were certain limitations in his “slice of life,” as they called it; but it was necessary to go through that in order to see beyond. Without that it would not have been possible to pass from romanticism into our own age, while in the field of ideas that isn’t possible without passing through the phase of vision that we call naturalism, via Zola and the Impressionists. If we fail to understand and follow that path, then the generous ideas of our time, however great, remain incomprehensible and no better than rootless growths. 

Jean Cocteau: We two have known, more than most people, the magnifenct gangsters of Cubism, the knigts of the Cubist tournament dressed in corrugated iron and newsprint. I think that you who knew Monet will agree that before the Cubists came along there was a certain goodness and gentleness among artists. Monet’s white beard evokes dear old Saint-Pol Roux, for me. He was a real Father Christmas. I met with the same kindness and Vuillard and Bonnard, both of them exquisite souls. We have lived through the age of violence. Our country cottage was a Martello tower, a stronghold. We had to defend our selves against the invading hordes.

Louis Aragon: You know, one odd thing is the kinship between Monet and another man, a poet: Monet had a Walt Whitman side to him.

Edouard Vuillard, Interior, 1902, Dallas Museum of Art

Edouard Vuillard, Place Vintmille, 1911, 5 panel distemper on paper, National Gallery of Art

Paul Signac: A Visit to Vuillard 1989

Vuillard took me to his home. He’s a sensitive and intelligent person and a highly strung, questioning painter. You feel that he was an unresting passion for art. His way of life has a dignity that command respect. He lives with his mother, keeps well away from the cliques and does his work in their small family apartments. He showed me sketches from every phase of his evolution. His deftly noted interiors have great charm. He has a marvelous understanding of the timbre of things. They’re the work of a fine painter–those many-colored panels, predominantly dark in key, but always with an explosion of bright color that somewhere re-establishes the harmony of the whole picture. The contrast of tone, the skillfully achieved chiaroscuro–these balance a scheme of color which, though often grey and languid in effect, is always unusual and delicate–almost unhealthily so, in fact.

Of course Vuillard, as a painter, has freed himself almost completely from that reality with which we others have to contend. Every artist must take his inspiration, to a certain extent, directly from nature; Vuillard balances too far on the side of fantasy, whereas our group is committed to reality. So strong, in his work, is the element of fantasy that he has to keep these little panels: it would be practically impossible for him to go further. The people in his pictures are not properly defined. as he’s an admirable draftsman it must be that he just doesn’t want to give them mouths and hands a feet. His finished pictures are like sketches. If he had to work on a big scale he’d have to be more exact–and what would become of him then? We put in too much detail; and he, it seems to me, not enough. It’s a real dilemma, and well we know it.

Signac in his account above is unfortunately confused about the difference between poetry and fantasy. He seems to be missing the essence of painting. And that’s because Signac was one of those unfortunate painters who painted out of theory, which is invariably a mistake … and it’s unfortunately in this period of history almost universal. Where is there any particular poetry in the dry repetitions of photographic reportage? And abstraction that is divorced from nature and the result of graphic design solutions or simply seeking pretty color formulations is as impoverished a form of visual poetry as the photographic version. Signac also doesn’t realize that it isn’t a matter of too much detail, it’s a matter of being disconnected from the Soul. It’s almost mind boggling he’s unaware of some of the detail in Vuillard’s work… Jean Cocteau and Louis Aragon, poets themselves, have no trouble whatsoever seeing that the essence here is the Soul.

As Monet and Walt Whitman are indeed Soul Brothers.

Edouard Vuillard, Woman in a Striped Dress, 1895

Edouard Vuillard, Mme. Vuillard Remplissant Une Carafe, 1904

Edouard Vuillard, End of Breakfast at Madame Vuillard, 1895

Edouard Vuillard, The Reader, 1896

Edouard Vuillard, Geraniums et boules-de-neige, oil on board, 1868-1940

The above Vuillard sold for $481,000 dollars in 1994. Andy Warhol’s Eight Elvises went for $104.2 a year or so ago. So you could either buy a single massproduced silkscreened image by a commercial illustrator hyped into art genius status by pseudo-philosophical pretensions or you could buy over 200 modest size Vuilllards (having to wait for them to come on the market in this fantasy construction)

This is a civilization bankrupt in every sense of the word… financially, morally, spiritually, intellectually, culturally….and the above contrast in value puts it into clear relief. As Wilde said: “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” Our current art world, its art collectors and dealers and overnight sensation artists, could hardly be more cynical.

But there are still some of us who say: Fuck You Wall Street, Charles Saatchie and Larry Gagosian… and if we do so insistently that might just be enough to allow the breathing room for those few poets out there to continue doing their work.

Painting is a vocation. It isn’t a career path. And it’s very rarely a road to riches if you’re doing it properly, particularly in this day and age.

Things were no less difficult when Vuillard was painting over a century ago. The capitalists were already busy at their destructive tasks. A letter from Vuillard to Alfred Natanson:

My dear Friend:

I don’t have much confidence in the encouragement I could offer. I could so easily seem brutal and unfeeling and I don’t want you to turn against me. Your note–forgive me if I speak of myself–touched me deeply at a moment when everything sets my teeth on edge. Everything, myself included; everything that I do; everything that I say; everything that everyone else does and says. I need to overflow a bit, and yet dare not. Do you know what it is to have had total confidence in everything and everyone and then find that only a very few landmarks are still standing and that one made a great mistake in not realizing that all things are relative, and that that is true above all in matters of the heart?

I’m rather downcast, for I had believed entirely in certain forms of behavior that I now realize do not apply. Fundamentally I’m unchanged, thank Heavens, and I’m not complaining or ‘in despair’–but I do feel like a child who no longer knows what’s solid and what isn’t. There may still be solid things in the world, but I’m not sure what they are.

I got used to abrupt material changes quite early in life—in fact I’ve nothing more to learn about them–but in the other domain I had no idea that things were as they actually are. I didn’t imagine that it would apply to me, in any case. I can’t say what it is that helps me to get going again, though I have a very clear notion of it when it happens.

Forgive me for not having anything better to say to you. But there is a certain analogy between our two cases, I think? One simply doesn’t know how much one can bear. You’ll probably be amazed, in the end, by what you went through and how you got out of it. And you will get out of it–one always does. The only thing I can say is–don’t brood! Don’t hug your wounds! They’ll be painful enough already. Talk to your friends about them–it helps a little. As for the idea that you want to get ill again–it’s too childish to bother with. You know for yourself that it doesn’t make sense.

I’m not doing much–just watching the leaves grow (literally). I did a bit of painting today, and in between I ruminate, clutching at anything that will stave off depression. It works, to my surprise, though I’m always fearing the worst. I expect it’ll go on that way for a long while. I shall think of nothing but myself and be amazed to find everyone else doing the same.

About trueoutsider

I'm an artist.
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4 Responses to Edouard Vuillard, Exquisite Soul

  1. The Vuillards are heartbreakingly beautiful.
    I love hearing about Monet’s deep connection to Walt Whitman – soul brothers, yes.
    ” Do not you see, O my brothers and sisters? It is not chaos or death… it is form and union and plan… it is eternal life… it is happiness.” WW

    Thanks so much for this, Trueoutsider.

  2. trueoutsider says:

    My pleasure as always. And thank you for the marvelous Whitman quote. I’ve been looking at a book I recently got on Bonnard and Vuillard and their photographic sources… so I want to share that as well. I’ve been thinking a lot about photography and art recently, starting with the post on Sickert. Sickert was one of the first artists who, as far as I’m aware, began to frankly acknowledge the use of photography in painting in a way that gave painting the upper hand. Vuillard and Bonnard do the same, as well as many others.

    I also want to append the Cather quote that was delightfully appended to the panel painting email you sent and trust you won’t mind.

    The stream and the broken pottery: what was any art but an effort to make a sheath, a mould in which to imprison for a moment the elusive element which is life itself,–life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose.
    Willa Cather, The Song of the Lark

  3. wewordsmiths says:

    Quite wow! His subtle pallet is yet astonishing & arresting. And so, lending even further value by contrast to the apparently sedate subjects.

    Thank you for a welcome retrospective! If only it could also be (in the main) prospective…

  4. wewordsmiths says:

    How Signac, as an artist, could fail to understand suggestion & glance, is to me, stupefying!

    (Also strong elements and/or features of some good poetry.)

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