Artists That Inspire

Jean-Edouard Vuillard

Jean-Édouard Vuillard (11 November 1868 – 21 June 1940) was a French painter, decorative artist and printmaker. He also was a decorative artist, painting theatre sets, panels for interior decoration, and designing plates and stained glass. He was borm in Cuiseaux (Saône-et-Loire), where he spent his youth before moving with his parents in 1877 to Paris. Vuillard entered a school run by the Marist Brothers. He was awarded a scholarship to attend the prestigious Lycée Fontaine, which in 1883 became the Lycée Condorcet. Vuillard studied rhetoric and art, making drawings of works by Michelangelo and classical sculptures.

In November 1885, when he left the Lycée, he joined Roussel at the studio of painter Diogène Maillart. There, Roussel and Vuillard learned the rudiments of painting. In 1885 he took courses at the Académie Julian, and frequented the studios of the prominent and fashionable painters William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Robert-Fleury. He failed in the competitions to enter the École des Beaux-Arts in February and July 1886 and again in February 1887. In July 1887, the persistent Vuillard was accepted, and was placed in the course of Robert-Fleury, then in 1888 with the academic history painter Jean-Léon Gérôme.

Late in 1889 he began to frequent the meetings the informal group of artists known as Les Nabis, or The prophets, a semi-secret, semi-mystical club which included Maurice Denis and some of his other friends from the Lycée. In 1888 the young painter Paul Sérusier had traveled to Brittany, where, under the direction of Paul Gauguin, he had made a nearly abstract painting of the seaport, composed of areas of color. This became The talisman, the first Nabi painting. Serusier and his friend Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis and Paul Ranson, were among the first Nabis of nabiim, dedicated to transforming art down to its foundations. In 1890, through Denis, Vuillard became a member of the group, which met in Ransom’s studio or in the cafes of the Passage Brady. The existence of the organisation was in theory secret, and members used coded nicknames; Vuillard became the Nabi Zouave, because of his military service.

“We perceive nature through the senses which give us images of forms, sounds, colours, etc.” he wrote on 22 November 1888, shortly before he became a Nabi. “A form or a colour exists only in relation to another. Form does not exist on its own. We can only conceive of the relations.” In 1890 he returned to the same idea: “Let’s look at a painting as a set of relations that are definitely detached from any idea of naturalism.”

Japanese prints influenced his work in the negation of depth, the simplicity of forms, and strongly contrasting colours. The faces were often turned away, and drawn with just a few lines. There was no attempt to create perspective. Vegetal, floral and geometric designs in the wallpaper or clothing were more important than the faces. In some of Vuillard’s works, the persons in the paintings almost entirely disappeared into the designs of the wallpaper. The Japanese influence continued in his later, post-Nabi works.

The Nabis went their separate ways after their exposition in 1900. They had always had different styles, though they shared common ideas and ideals about art. Vuillard gradually abandoned the close, crowded and dark interiors he had painted before 1900, and began to paint more outdoors, with natural light. He continued to paint interiors, but the interiors had more light and colour, more depth, and the faces and features were clearer. The effects of the light became primary components of his paintings, whether they were interior scenes or the parks and streets of Paris. He gradually returned to naturalism. After 1920 he was increasingly occupied painting portraits for wealthy and distinguished Parisians. He preferred to use the a la collie sur toiel, or distemper technique, which allowed him to create more precise details and richer colour effects. In 1940, he completed his last two portraits. He suffered from pulmonary difficulties, and traveled to La Baule in Loire-Atlantique to restore his health. He died there on 21 June 1940.