A Trip Back to Belle Epoque Paris at the Jewish Museum

Mom has mongoose eyes

Politeness, Paul Valéry once said, is organized indifference. That statement goes a way to describing the decades of more conventional portraits Vuillard executed until his death. Excuses for painting big rooms full of bric-a-brac, these formal pictures of self-satisfied celebrities, industrialists, and the assorted rich and powerful look like strangely compulsive time capsules today. Mostly all-over pattern and decoration, with every bit of psychology leached out—except, of course, the artist's own strangled ennui—these paintings reflect several decades spent hiding out from the 20th century's bloody conflagrations, including two world wars.

A "Prophet": Self-Portrait With Waroquy
Courtesy the Jewish Museum
A "Prophet": Self-Portrait With Waroquy


'Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890–1940'
The Jewish Museum
1109 Fifth Avenue
212-423-3200, thejewishmuseum.org
Through September 23

"I don't paint portraits," Vuillard explained. "I paint people in their environments." The people in Vuillard's environments presently read like empty caricatures of a triumphant, smug, yet highly vulnerable social class. Despite their haughty airs and stiff poses, it was only a few years after posing for Vuillard that a number of them were tragically marched off to Auschwitz and Birkenau.

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