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The Jewish Museum opens Edouard Vuillard. A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940

The Jewish Museum presents Edouard Vuillard. A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940, on view from May 4 through September 23, 2012.

Edouard Vuillard, Lucy Hessel Reading, 1913, oil on canvas. The Jewish Museum, New York, Purchase: Lore Ross Bequest, 2010-23.

The art of Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940) – a painter who began his career as a member of the Nabi group of avant-garde artists in Paris in the 1890s – will be celebrated at The Jewish Museum in the first major one-person, New York exhibition of the French artist’s work in over twenty years. Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940 will include more than 50 paintings as well as a selection of prints, photographs and documents exploring the crucial role played by the patrons, dealers and muses who comprised Vuillard’s circle. The exhibition will examine the prominence of key players in the cultural milieu of modern Paris, many of them Jewish, and their influence on Vuillard’s professional and private life. The exhibition explores Vuillard’s continuing significance from the turn of the 20th century to the onset of World War II. Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940 brings together works from public and private collections in the U.S. and Europe. A quarter of the paintings have never been exhibited publicly in America before.

Vuillard’s career spans fifty years, from the fin-de-siècle to the German occupation of France. During his lifetime, Paris was the capital of the international avant-garde, the laboratory of new styles in art, music, poetry, and prose. Vuillard was at the heart of this creative ferment. In these decades, the work of vanguard artists was supported by collectors, gallerists, publishers, and theater impresarios who encouraged modernist cultural experiments. Vuillard had unusually close and sustained relationships with his patrons; some became intimate and lifelong friends. In this glittering cultural milieu he became romantically involved with two fascinating women, Misia Natanson and Lucy Hessel, each of whom served as both patron and muse.

Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940 traces the entire arc of Vuillard’s career, in which he pursued painterly experimentation in color, media, and ambience, especially in portraiture. The exhibition presents a selection from all stages of Vuillard’s long creative activity and is divided into the various phases of the artist’s career. He established his signature themes – interiors and the depiction of modern life – in the 1890s. As his style evolved, he continued to use pattern, texture, and the framing device of windows, doors, and mirrors, while extending his repertoire to the genres of landscape, still life, and especially portraiture. Vuillard’s late portraits are a revelation –among the great examples in the twentieth century and of dazzling virtuosity. Experimental, yet deeply committed to the old masters throughout his life, Vuillard maintained a continual tension in his work between tradition and modernism.

The exhibition begins with the young artist’s involvement in the vibrant cultural landscape of fin-de-siècle Paris. He rapidly established himself in avant-garde circles, joining a groundbreaking group of artists called the Nabis. Taking their inspiration from Paul Gauguin and Odilon Redon, the Nabis (“prophets” in Hebrew) used simplified forms and pure colors to create emotive and decorative pictures. It was during his Nabi period that Vuillard produced some of his best-known work: paintings of friends and families in domestic interiors. While developing his art he created posters and graphic works and designed sets and programs for the avant-garde theater.

Soon he attracted the interest of Thadée and Misia Natanson. Descended from a family of Polish-Jewish bankers, Thadée and his brothers Alexandre and Alfred founded and published La Revue blanche, an important cultural magazine. The Natansons were prime movers in Vuillard’s circle, bringing together Paris’s leading intellectuals and members of the avant-garde, including artists, writers, theatrical impresarios, politicians, and philosophers. The friendship and patronage of the Natansons vaulted the artist to success during the 1890s, and it was through their connections that, in 1892, Vuillard painted the first of his interior decorative murals. Such commissions – large-scale canvases or suites designed for specific locations – demonstrate not only the expansion of his style, but the importance of his patrons to his growing success.

After 1900 Vuillard’s style shows an increasing refinement. Paint is applied less thickly, details are less blurred, and the artist introduces more naturalistic perspective into his scenes. The change reflects a shift in his life. He joined the Bernheim-Jeune gallery, one of the most prestigious venues for modern art in Paris, and began to expand his clientele. The gallery was managed by Jos Hessel and his cousins Gaston and Josse Bernheim. Hessel arranged the first group exhibition of the Nabis there in April 1900. He was to remain Vuillard’s principal dealer and close friend for the next forty years.

Jos and his wife, Lucy, gradually became a second family for the artist. Like the Natansons, they were at the center of a lively social circle. At the turn of the century, Lucy Hessel replaced Misia as Vuillard’s confidante and devoted supporter. The two became lovers, embarking on what was to be a lifelong relationship.

During his post-Nabi years, from 1900 until his death in 1940, Vuillard developed a highly personal style of modern naturalism. In the later decades of his career, he largely devoted himself to portraiture, giving equal attention to the sitters and their surroundings, reflecting his belief that the sitters’ homes and possessions revealed as much of their identities as the individuals themselves. He continued the themes of landscape and interiors, spending much of his time at the Chateau des Clayes, the Hessel’s historic estate near Versailles during the 1930s. A late style blossomed: brushy, gestural, and light in palette.

Selected exhibition highlights include two masterpieces of the Nabi period: Woman in a Striped Dress, from The Album, 1895, and Misia and Vallotton at Villeneuve, 1899. From the rich array of his portraiture, Marcelle Aron (Madame Tristan Bernard), 1914, uses the mirror dramatically to play tricks with space and perspective while a striking pastel portrait captures the appearance and character of the art dealer, Sam Salz, 1939. In work from the later period, Luncheon at Les Clayes, 1935-38, Vuillard’s sense of scale and free, energetic execution celebrate a world in which society and art are one.

Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940 was organized by Stephen Brown, Assistant Curator, The Jewish Museum, in consultation with Norman Kleeblatt, Susan and Elihu Rose Chief Curator.

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