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Once upon a time, in Paris at the start of the previous century, art and money had a cozy relationship that was just as problematic as our own today. This is certainly one possible takeaway from the Jewish Museum’s elegant exhibition Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890–1940. A display of more than 50 paintings, prints, drawings, and photographs by a social-climbing French introvert, this show makes visible the root of contemporary art’s current dilemma—the artist’s fraught give and take with society at large.
Edouard Vuillard (1868–1940) emerged as a full-grown artist around the beginning of the justly called Belle Epoque. A period not unlike what Paul Krugman has called our Second Gilded Age, the era between 1890 and 1914 in France was dominated by that ascendant civilization’s four P’s: prosperity, peace at home, plenty of pleasure-seeking, and a pile of new plutocrats itching to make their presence felt. Dubbed the nouveau riches by the Parisian elites, these folks made their money by exploiting newfangled manufacturing and financial industries. Working for a living—quelle horreur! Predictably enough, this crowd initially took their social cues from the more established classes, just with a shark’s avidity.
One salutary result of these developments, though, was an explosion of Paris’s cultural offerings. Dance and the theater thrived. Galleries, music halls, and cabarets sprang up like kudzu from the paving stones. Eventually, painters like Vuillard and his friends Maurice Denis, Ker-Xavier Roussel, Félix Vallotton, and Pierre Bonnard (against whom Vuillard is often slightingly compared) scored ambitious patrons hungry to make a cultural mark. As artists, they formed an avant-garde group called Les Nabis—”The Prophets” in Hebrew. Together with their shared patrons and their equally driven wives, they reinforced one another’s cultural and social ascendancy at a time when Paris—like New York toward the end of the 20th century—was all the bounding rage.
The rise of bourgeois life as an unstoppable norm (it was the globalization of its time) dovetailed neatly with the development of a variety of isms that came to artistically represent the social and cultural forces at play: There was symbolism, impressionism, and intimism to take in before the 19th century was out. Vuillard is considered a master of this last artistic change, a decidedly mousy movement. A shut-in’s defensive stance toward freewheeling change, intimism shunned grand statements—say, Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa and the later clean sweep that was cubism—for a view from inside the era’s McMansions, a lifetime’s study of striped wallpaper and drawing-room detail that also happened to provide an insider’s account of a new, hyper-successful social class.
The nervously deferential Vuillard was four years younger than Toulouse-Lautrec, nine younger than Seurat, 20 younger than Gauguin, and 34 younger than Degas. He was profoundly influenced by all of these figures, but not at all partial to their world-beating vanguardism. A dressmaker’s son whose work belied a cultivated hypersensitivity (like Andy Warhol, he was a mama’s boy), he translated pointillism into an obsession with domestic patterning and the use of flat color into symbolically charged pictures that relied on short brushstrokes and shadow to create often creepily indistinct effects. If artists like Matisse (one year younger) and Picasso (15 years younger) were all about shining the light of painting’s reason into the darker corners of the visible, Vuillard inwardly hoped to hide out and draw inside his patron’s plush, comfortable study, preferably with the blinds drawn. It is Vuillard’s social and artistic success in achieving this effectively misanthropic result that still makes the enervated work of this early modernist turned society painter such weirdly entrancing stuff.
Take the first painting on view at the Jewish Museum, Self-Portrait With Waroquy (1889). An initial demonstration of a kind of critical self-consciousness that is earned, not learned—it was likely a product of life lived on society’s lower rungs rather than a result of the artist’s patchy schooling—the picture features Vuillard painting his reflection in a mirror while shadowed by a massive, blurry figure. Per convention, the frame-within-a-frame schema suggests that art exists in a realm separate from reality. The fact that it also pictures the artist as a dwarf highlights the veiled cruelty this artist would later unleash on many of his subjects, his so-called muses included.
Vuillard cast that colder eye on his most beloved sitters. His domineering mother, for one, sports a flat red face and mongoose eyes in the otherwise richly detailed Madame Vuillard at Table (1895). Vuillard’s sister—a spinster whom the artist made extra miserable by marrying her to a womanizing friend—appears as a chunky black-clad crone in Marie Opening the Window (1893). But the painter’s most bitchy psychologizing acquires its full passive-aggressive pitch only later, when Vuillard feels safely ensconced within a protective bubble of haute-bourgeois respectability and a steady stream of upper-middle-class commissions. One such painting, The Gilded Chair, Madame Georges Feydeau and Her Son (1906)—a portrait of the family of an important playwright—crams a brocaded period salon into a vertigo-inducing vanishing point. To add insult to injury, Vuillard depicts Feydeau Jr. as a sailor-suited Chucky doll with rouged cheeks (children, which the painter never sired, get it in the neck in many of his pictures).
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.
“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.