Edouard Vuil­lard: A Painter and His Mus­es, 1890 – 1940

Stephen Brown, with an essay by Richard R. Brettell
  • Review
By – September 4, 2012

The exhi­bi­tion of Edouard Vuillard’s paint­ings at The Jew­ish Muse­um in New York City is the third exhi­bi­tion in a year that high­lights the Jew­ish patrons and col­lec­tors who were active­ly acquir­ing art in Paris in the late nine­teenth and first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. The first two, one at The Jew­ish Muse­um and one at the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art, focused on the impor­tant col­lec­tions of the Cone sis­ters of Bal­ti­more and Gertrude and Leonard Stein, respec­tive­ly. In those instances the col­lec­tions includ­ed major artists of the Impres­sion­ist and post-Impres­sion­ist peri­od. In this case, Vuil­lard, him­self not Jew­ish, was col­lect­ed inten­sive­ly by sev­er­al wealthy Jew­ish fam­i­lies for half a cen­tu­ry. To read about those fam­i­lies is to peer into the world of assim­i­lat­ed, intel­lec­tu­al Jews who were active in the arts, media, and busi­ness. Includ­ed, among oth­ers, are Natan­son, Kapfer­er, Hes­sel, and Wertheimer. Vuil­lard was a painter of por­traits and inte­ri­ors – col­or­ful and detailed, with atten­tion paid as much to the fur­nish­ings, cloth­ing, and wall dec­o­ra­tions as to the sub­ject of the paint­ing. As such they are nar­ra­tive paint­ings pro­vid­ing infor­ma­tion about the class and inter­ests of the sub­ject.

Stephen Brown, the author, is assis­tant cura­tor of The Jew­ish Muse­um. Accord­ing to Brown, Vuil­lard, who had been asso­ci­at­ed with the group of artists who called them­selves Nabis” (from the Hebrew/​Arabic), aimed to be the Prophets” of an art that favored rich pat­terns and palettes, sym­bol­ism and metaphor and dream­like imagery.” Inspired by the col­orist paint­ings of Paul Gau­guin, Vuil­lard con­tin­ued to paint in a style that won him com­mis­sions to the end of his life. Vuil­lard nev­er showed an inter­est in the ear­ly mod­ernist or avant garde trends, which left him out of the major devel­op­ments of twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry art. Brown is attempt­ing to move him into the lime­light again.

The essay by Richard Bret­tell, Vuil­lard, Proust and Por­trai­ture,” is a fas­ci­nat­ing com­par­i­son of the works of each, point­ing out the sim­i­lar­i­ties between Vuillard’s artis­tic depic­tions and Proust’s lan­guage art. Bret­tell insists that Vuil­lard intends to reveal the subject’s char­ac­ter much as Proust does. A com­pelling study, Brettell’s con­clu­sion is chal­leng­ing. Per­haps, had there not been the Holo­caust, we would today ignore the fact that the Kapfer­ers, like many of Vuillard’s sit­ters, were Jew­ish. Because of it, we can­not.”

The book is rich­ly illus­trat­ed with 109 col­or plates. An appen­dix of nine­teen Patrons and Mus­es” is includ­ed. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, index.

Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

Discussion Questions