Melded impressions

Vuillard could be said to have brought French Impressionism indoors. He and Bonnard (with whom his name seems forever coupled, in spite of their clear individuality) painted the light in the corner of a burgeois dining room, or the reflected sunlight trapped in a heavily furnished parlor, or the pools of shadow and light shed by lamps at night as the family ate or did domestic chores or talked at ease. Even when he went out into the garden Vuillard displayed almost the same horror of open spaces -- or at least a great love of the enclosed, and the very close. Distances apparently fascinated him little. The label "intimist" suited him well.

But his paintings do not, as a consequence, lack variety, richness or colour. The broken facture of the Impressionists is transferred to the re-creation in paint of highly decorated wallpapers and to the ornate fabrics which adorn furniture and people alike. It is as if he saw in Impressionism the possibilities of a new kind of patternmaking, and, conversely, in the interior decor of the 1980s the possibility of a new kind of Impressionism, and the result was an extraordinarily full and opulent tapestry. Reportedly he was delighted by the medieval "Dame a la Licorne" tapestry in the Musee de Cluny, and he applied to his own painterly works a similar idea of making both back and foreground act together on the same frontal plane, producing an all- over decoration. People are often almost lost in this "undergrowth." They merge with arabesques of leaf and flower, vanish as if camouflaged in the total ambiance of the rooms. But everything in this ambiance revolves round everything else: a central focus is abandoned and a complete atmosphere is painted instead. Rooms themselves are Vuillard's subjects, and they have the slightly heady, almost airless, cosiness of the very familiar.

It is perhaps scarcely surprising to learn that a man so smitten with decoration, both as an environment and a potency, had a mother (whose home he never left) who was a dressmaker, a grandfather who had been a textile manufacturer, and an uncle who made designs for cashmere shawls. He painted his mother almost as a fixture in the private world of his home. He called her his "muse." Other members of the family were also painted frequently. They were not brought into his studio and posed. They remained in their own context, and Vuillard made little division between his art and the life going on all round him.

The mother and child in the picture shown here were probably his sister Marie (who had married Vuillard's friend since school days, the painter Ker-Xavier Roussel) and her daughter. There is precise observation of the way a mother lifts her child aloft, with a mixture of pride and play, ritual and purpose, and the tiny personage, warmly enveloped by the room, provides the momentary climax of a painting-event filled with incident. The mother is seen largely as patches of colour, her face almost completely hidden, her figure overwhelmed by voluminous clothes. Who she is matters far less than where she is and what she is doing.

Vuillard was not, at this period (the 1890s), aiming at clarity. Like Degas he was interested in contriving compositions that look as though they had occurred by chance. The accidental cutoffs and comparative spontaneity of photographs helped him to exploit unexpected asymmetry. The free rhythms of composition found in Japanese prints, with their awareness surface patterns and movements across the picture plane rather than into a recessional depth, must also have made its conbribution to his pictorial organization. And an essay by Edouard Duranty in defense of Degas is cited as having discussed characteristics of new painting which Vuillard made uniquely his own. If people "happened" to be unusually far over to one side of a room, why should they not be painted that way in relation to the picture frame? And if they did not stand out distinctly from their background, why make them appear to do so? Vuillard went further. He positively relished a confusion of "figure" and "ground," painting women in patterned dresses similar to carpets and curtains and wallpapers. With delight he painted people nearly out of the picture altogether, or hidden behind newspapers, or swallowed by armchairs. He made a checked tablecloth more prominent than the family at lunch, showed dressmakers in a welter of fabrics and prints, painted children scarcely visible against the vivid patterns of the rugs on which they played.

It has been argued that the poet Mallarme influenced this fusion of images, aimed at suggestion and evocation rather than at separately named and depicted objects in a defined setting. The viewer is made to guess a little; he is not to have the world presented to him without some mystery.

Be that as it may, the sense of profusion in Vuillard's paintings acts as a means of concentrating, of crowding into a confined space, as much as it can hold. Underlying this is a sure sense of arrangement that locks the picture into place so that it does not fall apart. In "Mother and Child," the screens and pictures, angling round the walls of the cluttered room, not only emphasize the shallow limits of the space but also act as links and dividers of the composition. They impose a larger pattern on the wealth of smaller ones, like flower beds crammed with a lavish planting.

Vuillard's small world in the 1890s doesn't look beyond itself much: it is safe, somewhat suffocating, but encourages warmth and affection. It is a world both immediate and exotic, routine and yet somehow visionary: conducive, doubtless, to the welfare and comfort of whoever is fortunate enough to melt softly into it: cats, mothers, children artists.

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