Vuillard's art offered a candid look at domestic life

The paintings Édouard Vuillard made in the 1890s frequently cast his mother or his sister in domestic scenes that appear at first to be so ordinary that they have little more significance than ... domestic scenes. They were labeled "intimiste" at the time. Vuillard himself was seen as reticent, inward, even puritanical. His world was "home," and it revolved around the two women closest to him.

That these modest paintings were the work of a young artist who had, for all his shyness, joined a group of radical and rebellious artists who called themselves the "Nabis" was somehow irrelevant.

That this group had rejected the academic art teaching of the period, flattening the forms almost abstractly in their paintings, choosing abruptly brash collisions of color, and deliberately making their paintings enigmatic, apparently didn't apply to his domestic interiors.

His fascination for street life and, above all, his dedication to the symbolist theater as a designer and scene painter, also seemed forgotten when he turned to these dimly-lighted, overpatterned, quietly uneventful interiors.

The catalog for the major traveling exhibition of Vuillard seen from 2003 to 2004 in Washington, Montreal, Paris, and London firmly challenges the absurd view of the artist as little more than cozy.

Knowledge gleaned from his journal and facts about various domestic upheavals reveal a more trenchant Vuillard. His domestic scenes are now more often interpreted as dramatic, ironic, even exploitative or cruel. Confrontations between his mother and sister are shown with surprising candor. Difficulties between his sister and her husband are objectively dramatized as if in a play by Ibsen or Maeterlinck.

This painting, "Breakfast" of 1894, could be of any woman alone with her early-morning thoughts. It is not in the least a portrait. Who she is has become less significant than her universality. Her inner life is unpretentiously presented, yet is a sort of an enigma, and immediately gives the viewer a feeling of sympathy as well as distancing. One would like to ask her: "A penny for your thoughts?" - but would have little likelihood of a response, particularly at that time of day, to such an intrusive proposal.

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