For this artist, small was beautiful

The National Gallery of Art has mounted a major exhibition of French painter Édouard Vuillard. Never heard of him? You will soon.

The image of the French painter Édouard Vuillard in the minds of most Americans is about as vague as a fog-bound Impressionist landscape.

Those who are familiar with his works might affix a few adjectives to his style, such as "dreamlike" or "melting." Vuillard (1868-1940) has been considered minor in the canon of French painting, his works categorized as small but beautiful. But few are able to relate a particular painting to his name or recall, really, why he deserves attention.

The work of this marginal artist is now being brought into clearer focus for Americans through a major exhibition - the most comprehensive ever mounted of Vuillard's work - at The National Gallery of Art in Washington.

"Édouard Vuillard," which opened earlier this week and travels to Montreal, Paris, and London, brings together more than 200 paintings and decorative works, some never seen by the public before. The works of this reclusive Post-Impressionist are revealing.

"This exhibition will put Vuillard on the map," says Gloria Groom, a curator of European painting at The Art Institute of Chicago, who has written a book on Vuillard. "It may turn the tide for him."

Painting people that he loved

Many scholars agree that it's time for Vuillard's extraordinary landscapes and portraits to be more widely appreciated.

"When people come to see this show," says Kimberly Jones, a curator at The National Gallery, "they'll see works as daring and provocative as Monet, as sumptuous and elegant as Renoir, and as sophisticated as Degas."

What Vuillard really painted was the atmosphere of the memory of the people and places he loved.

Although strongly influenced by the Impressionists, whose work was derived directly from plein-air observation of the subject, Vuillard, as a Post-Impressionist, transfigured his subject-matter in a style termed Synthetism.

In Vuillard's small domestic interiors of the 1890s, many of which are on view in this retrospective, the artist's imagination transformed the mundane reality of Parisian middle-class life into visions of dream-like beauty.

A brilliant color-sense within a muted palette, uncanny juxtapositions of patterns within an interior scene, and the ability to create the eerie mood of memory are a few of the qualities that define Vuillard.

"People recognize his style - pattern-on-pattern paintings where the people are dissolving into the wallpaper," says Ms. Groom.

Vuillard was an artist who certainly painted what he knew. He was raised in the home studio of his widowed mother's garment workshop, so it was natural that he would develop an appreciation for patterns of fabric and the aesthetic magic they can create.

Mother as his muse

The majority of his early compositions are of family members or the seamstresses who worked for his mother.

Unusually in the history of art, it is Vuillard's mother who was the main support and inspiration in the artist's life. He described her as his muse and lived with her until he was 60 years old.

Although it seems like an unusual domestic arrangement, it worked for Vuillard. "Remember this was the 19th century," says Vuillard scholar Ms. Groom. "Madame Vuillard was his quiet supporter and he felt a filial obligation toward her."

But contrary to modern stereotypes, Vuillard was able to spread his wings in Paris, becoming acquainted with many of the leading cultural men and women of his day, including the poet Stephen Mallarme, the novelist Marcel Proust, and the painter Pierre Bonnard, a fellow member of the artists' circle called "Les Nabis."

Influenced by Gaugin and Seurat, Vuillard began to develop compositions in the 1890s in which the patterns on wallpaper, garments, and carpet interfuse and meld together, enfolding abstracted figures (often his mother and sister) in an atmosphere of color.

A beautiful example of this technique at its fullest expression is "The Striped Blouse (1895)," a painting which forms part of a series called "The Album." The burgundy and white stripes of the woman's blouse provide an energetic counterpoint to the flowers and greenery, which appear to intermingle with wallpaper that is nothing but visible molecules of red and yellow.

But scholars say there are layers of meaning under the paint.

"Vuillard's paintings are secretive and difficult to understand. They always have a double meaning," says Guy Cogeval, director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and general curator of the show.

Family drama

A wide representation of Vuillard's photographs, on display in the exhibit, have led to a greater understanding of the complexities in his paintings.

Vuillard would keep his newly invented Kodak camera at hand to take snapshots of his family and friends. Often he would refer to these photos years later in planning a composition, giving modern scholars clues to the family dramas being enacted in paint.

As Vuillard's reputation in Paris grew, his life expanded and he began to take trips into the countryside to paint landscapes, several of which are included in this retrospective.

Later, he was introduced into the world of Parisian high society and began to receive commissions to paint portraits of the people who inhabited that gilded realm.

But these late pictures seem to reveal that Vuillard was not truly comfortable outside his own milieu.

After all, Vuillard had spent his life trying to define great painting. As he wrote in his journal in 1894:

"There is a species of emotion particular to painting. There is an effect that results from a certain arrangement of colors, of light, of shadows. It is this that one calls the music of painting."

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