Edouard Vuillard The Poetry of the Everyday

Édouard Vuillard: The Poetry of the Everyday
24 May to 15 September 2019

This Spring, The Holburne Museum presents an extensive exhibition of works by Édouard Vuillard (1868-1940) including many that are rarely publicly displayed.

Vuillard was one of the leading figures in French art at the end of the 19th-century. He is famed for his small, subtle studies mostly of figures in interiors. The Poetry of the Everyday celebrates the unique qualities of his early work (from the 1890s) in which he balanced an obsession with patterned fabrics and wallpaper with subtle, domestic psycho-dramas to create paintings with a striking emotional intensity. Vuillard’s art is renowned for its modest scale, intimate subject matter and subdued colouring. The Poetry of the Everyday will include around forty paintings and prints, including a number of rarely seen oils from private lenders alongside major works from national and regional public collections.

Vuillard was a founder member of The Nabis, a group of painters who followed Paul Gauguin and Edgar Degas in emphasising the decorative qualities of a picture. Vuillard’s art is often compared to poetry because of the way he combined this emphasis on the formal qualities of a work of art with recognisable subject matter and implied narratives. He himself said, ‘Who speaks of art speaks of poetry. There is no art without a poetic aim.’

Though he painted numerous landscapes, several of which will be on show at the Holburne, Vuillard’s art is dominated by domestic interiors. While he often painted friends, a large part of his output is made up of pictures of the apartments that he shared with his mother and his sister. Vuillard described his mother, with whom he lived until her death in 1928, as his ‘muse’ and there are over 500 portrayals of her. Mme Vuillard was a seamstress, working from home, and the fabrics that filled their apartment clearly provided the artist with great stimulation. This he combined with the elaborately patterned wall papers which had become widespread in late 19th-century Paris as new printing techniques made them easier to produce and to afford.

While the women of his own family dominated much of his work, Vuillard’s output was much more diverse. Though at times almost abstract, his art captures the quiet dramas that go on in a tight-knit family, or in any domestic realm. Some works depict friends while in several others, mysterious figures appear to intrude subtly from the edges of the painting.

At first Two Seamstresses in the Workroom (1893, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art) appears purely to be a depiction of two young women stitching cloth. Vuillard illuminates the painting with bright, contrasting colours; a lamp casts a rich, amber glow making the blue of the woman’s blouse in the foreground command our attention. However, upon closer inspection we can see there is another person at the table. Their presence is evidenced by the merest hint of a flesh tone, but the characteristic shape of her forehead tells us that Madame Vuillard is here.

Mme Vuillard provides a frame and initial focal point to The Green Dinner (1892, Private Collection), as Vuillard shows us a scene of typical family life, with his immediate relatives chatting after eating together. This painting reflects the close relationships of the Vuillards and another important figure in both the artist’s life and art, his older sister Marie.

The relationship between mother and daughter is demonstrated in the National Gallery of Scotland’s The Chat (1893) but is also remarkable for another feature – a sense of distance, rather than a close up, intimate portrayal of his subjects.

Marie takes a central role in The Artist’s Sister with a Pot of Coffee (1893, The Fitzwilliam Museum). She sits very still, with a baleful expression. The flat, charcoal tones of her dress appear to be merging with the near-black patterned wallpaper behind her. The gold-coloured table cloth and blue-patterned, white cup and saucer to her left suggest a break from the drudgery of her chores, as evidenced by the broom leaning on the wall. Vuillard introduces a tragi-comic aspect to this very moving painting, by inserting the figure of his mother in the adjoining room.

The Barber Institute’s Madame Vuillard Arranging Her Hair (1900) encapsulates Vuillard’s principal fascinations – his petit-bourgeois mother, domestic activities and life as it is lived, in this case, his mother pinning her trademark bun.

Vuillard’s apparent preoccupation with the patterns on soft-furnishings, wallpaper and clothing coalesce in The Manicure (1897, Southampton City Art Gallery). The painting reveals the influence of Gauguin’s ideas on the combination of subject matter, the artist’s feelings about the subject and the use of form, colour and line. Vuillard, a shy and sensitive man, creates an intimate atmosphere, dominated by the competing patterns of wallpapers and fabrics and psychological tensions between the subjects and Vuillard himself.

Though a majority will be of interiors – populated and not – there are also be a number of landscapes in the exhibition, including Road Skirting a Forest (c.1896, Private Collection), The Farm in Brittany (around 1906, Private Collection) and Landscape – House on the Left (1900, Tate).

Chris Stephens, the Holburne’s Director and curator of The Poetry of the Everyday says “To my mind, Vuillard made some of the most extraordinary and most beautiful pictures of the late 19th century, an unusually rich moment in art history. Like a true poet, he brilliantly balanced the formal qualities of colour and pattern with enigmatic psychological drama. Abstract and narrative, his paintings have a power made all the more compelling by their compact scale.”

For more information about Vuillard: The Poetry of Everyday Life plus other exhibitions and events at the Holburne Museum follow @Holburne on Twitter, follow holburnemuseumbath on Instagram, like the Holburne Museum Facebook page or visit www.holburne.org

The Holburne Museum’s mission statement is ‘Changing Lives through Art’, signalling its commitment to opening up the enjoyment of art to people of all ages and from every walk of life. The Holburne was founded in 1882 with the gift of Sir William Holburne’s collection of 16th and 17th century Italian and Dutch paintings, silver, sculpture, furniture, porcelain and diverse objets d’art of national and international significance. That founding gift has been augmented with a collection of 18th century paintings by such artists as Gainsborough, Lawrence, Ramsay, Stubbs and Zoffany. Set within the historic Sydney Pleasure Gardens, the Museum reopened in May 2011 after ambitious renovations and with a new, award-winning extension by Eric Parry Architects. The Holburne has since secured a national reputation as an outstanding museum which holds critically acclaimed exhibitions. Its programme of exhibitions, commissions and events sets out to bring to Bath great art of all periods and from around the world, seeking to set the art of the past in dialogue with contemporary practice in exciting and dynamic new ways.

Katie Jenkins, the Holburne Museum k.jenkins@holburne.org