Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Edouard Vuillard

Nape of Misai’s neck, 1897
Oil on board mounted on cradled panel, 13 x 33 in

Royal Academy, London
31st March 2004

This extensive show covered not only his paintings, but also featured his drawings and photographs. Although there were many paintings of gloomy interiors that betrayed his interest in the theatre of Ibsen and perhaps the influence of Edvard Munch, I preferred his intimate portrayals of his mother sewing, and her clients trying on their new dresses. These and the portraits of close friends record the melancholia inherent in the everyday and have a claustrophobic intensity that he shares with Pierre Bonnard. So rather than a bleak interior, the painting I have chosen is of Misia Nantanson, the wife of one of his clients, and for a time the object of his desire.

Misia Godebska, a Polish pianist and pupil of the composer Gabriel Fauré was attractive, intelligent and capricious and after her marriage to Thadée Nantanson, she gathered around her a group of bohemian admirers. There is little doubt that Vuillard fell under her spell; he helped her to decorate her apartment, went with her to exhibitions and in the 1890’s painted her more than any other person outside his family. The setting is the Nantanson’s country house in the summer and the pose suggests that the painter is watching his hostess engrossed in reading perhaps. Despite the small size and the simplicity of the restrained palette the loose matte brushwork in creams and yellows contrasting with the violet notes in the background, keeps the surface vibrant and suggest the torpor of a hot summer afternoon with little to do.

However, rather than ennui, you get a real sense of the voyeuristic presence of the artist, as his subject, with her face hidden behind a lock of hair, looks away leaving her neck exposed to his gaze. The sense of unfulfilled romance is palpable and it seems Vuillard was destined to “long after women” from a distance as he never married and lived with his mother until her death in 1920.

The extraordinary long rectangular shape of the painting reinforces the claustrophobic intimacy as the viewer looms above the vulnerable neck. The tight crop, although not the shape of the image reflects Vuillard’s use of photography as an aide memoir, he owned a Kodak and took thousands of photographs including several of Misia Nantanson that afforded him the luxury of extending his indulgence. However, the flatness of the image and the vulnerable neck as subject recalls Japanese prints, in particular Utamaro’s images of courtesans.

As Vuillard states in one of his journals: “The expressive techniques of painting are capable of conveying an analogy, but not an impossible photograph of, a moment. How different are the snapshot and the image.”[1]

No doubt he felt his painting was a better vehicle for conveying his true feelings than the photographs of her that often featured her husband, albeit out of focus.

[1] Easton, Elizabeth Wynne, The Intentional Snapshot Vuillard Catalogue National Museum of Art Washington 2003 p431


  1. Thanks for your educative information about Misia (!) Sert -oh, what a fascinating and attractive madame who could inspire so many artists (http://www.aei.ca/~anbou/misiasert.html)!- and the painter Édouard Vuillard and the "unfilled romance" between both persons. I very like the silent painting- the pose of Misia, the uncertainty of her face and her gestures/her doing -and her "vulnerable neck"- yes, I can feel the love the oil has been painted with! The feel of melancholy might be connected with the life story which can be read behind/within the painting.

  2. An influence of Japanes prints may not be convincing at the first moment- but I know that Van Gogh has been influenced by Japanes paintings...(there was an exhibtiotin in Amsterdam)-why not EV?
    Whi is interested in the adventurous life of the beautiful Pole (VZ said to me that the East-European women had the certain someting!), should read her "Memories from Paris"/"Pariser Erinnerungen"!

  3. Thought you might like this quote from Misai on the romance that never got started...

    "The echoes of this agitation (the Dreyfus affair) reached me at Villeneuve, and I decided to leave for Paris earlier than usual. Vuillard then said he wanted to take a last walk along the banks of the Yonne, and we started at dusk. Looking dreamy and grave, he led me beside the river amongst the tall birches with their silvery trunks. He moved slowly over the yellowing grass, and I fell in with his mood; we did not speak. The day was closing in rapidly so we took a shortcut across a beetroot field. Our silhouettes were insubstantial shadows against a pale sky. The ground was rough, I tripped on a root and almost fell; Vuillard stopped abruptly to help me regain my balance. Our eyes met. In the deepening shadows I could see the sad gleam of his glance. He burst into sobs. It was the most beautiful declaration of love ever made to me."

    He was a bit of a hopeless case, after Misai he had a similar affar of the heart that remained at a distance and was only consummated in his paintings.

    The Japanese prit influence comes from Gauguin, who was an inspiration to both Vuillard and Bonnard.