Vuillard at the Jewish Museum: A Painter and His Muses


Edouard Vuillard, Mother and Daughter Against a Red Background, 1891, oil on cardboard. Private collection.

An overbearing Mom with her trapped daughter. This young lady can’t wait for Mom to take her afternoon nap in front of Jeopardy so she can sneak out to the skate park with her friends or maybe the frozen pond by the old Dutch white-clay pipe store.

Here’s a real muse for you. We bet he couldn’t wait to paint these narrative scenes. A great painter driven on by what he had to say about his home life, his close friends and his keen observations of interior life. All this meant something important to him. His early canvasses had more tension in a small space than Bonnard’s but basically the same inspiration. Explosive pent up stuff in small rooms.

The first room of this beautiful exhibit at the Jewish Museum is filled with 10 or 15 portraits, all brilliant with radical compositions, full of power and all displaying a complex range of emotions in diminutive scale.

Visitors tip: after the first two rooms, put your head down and run to the nearest exit. The show’s over.  

We came to this show wondering what made Vuillard tick and here it is; his later “muse’ became the evil God mammon.  Two things happened: his new dealer, Jo Hessel, took him on with a gaggle of wealthy clients and then Vuillard took up with his gallerists young wife! Shame on you Edouard, poor show, old chap!

But actually who can blame him and who wouldn’t get tired of those Bohemian’s and their smelly-sweatered, dreary poetry readings and subtitled art movies accompanied by relentless lentil soup ? 

Pretty much all of Vuillard’s later work took a nosedive after about 1904 or 5. Maybe there are some hidden gems like Nolde’s “Paintings never painted”, beautiful postcard sized pictures secreted away after the Nazi’s ordered him not to lift a bush again, or else! But somehow we kind of doubt it. Looks like the discrete corruption of bourgeois life pounded him.

 Just say NO comrade artists!  Pay attention as here’s what not to do if you are an artist. Or if you are a collector ready to bully your artist. Let the painter alone, no more waving ‘C’ notes before him, let him do what he wants. Grosz and Goya got away with poking fun at the foppery and degradation. And great works exist for us through the ages. 

 See below for a classic late Vuillard. A telling portrait, a man holding a magnifying glass his life defined by his trophy’s hanging on the walls like big game animals. Look at me, he says, I am too a cultured dude with much art, in gold frames, even!

In spite of the later works this is an exhibit about a great artist, and should not be missed. 

Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses runs May 4th through September 23rd at The Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10128. 

Edouard Vuillard, David David-Weill, 1925, oil on canvas. Private collection.