Really? That Dress? In Front of That Wallpaper?

Vuillard’s Woman in a Striped Dress from The Jewish Museum’s exhibition.

French painter Edouard Vuillard (1869-1940) should be better known.

He created complex, sophisticated images full of jarring patterns and ambiguous psychology. The paintings manage to be gorgeous and uncanny at once.

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They are amazing in person and you’ll be able to see 50 of them at The Jewish Museum from May 4 through September 23, 2012.

This exhibition focuses on Vuillard’s patrons, who often were also his “muses,” sitting for portraits. I’m always impressed with patrons who champion difficult, avant-garde artwork; Vuillard’s portraits are not reliably flattering. But we are lucky that his patrons understood that there’s more to avant-garde modernism than physiological flattery.

From The Jewish Museum’s press release:

Edouard Vuillard
A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940
Opens at The Jewish Museum on May 4th
First Major One-Person, New York Exhibition of the French Artist’s Work in Over Twenty Years

The art of Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940) – a painter who began his career as a member of the Nabi group of avant-garde artists in Paris in the 1890s – will be celebrated at The Jewish Museum in the first major one-person, New York exhibition of the French artist’s work in over twenty years. Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940 will include more than 50 paintings as well as a selection of prints, photographs and documents exploring the crucial role played by the patrons, dealers and muses who comprised Vuillard’s circle. On view from May 4 through September 23, 2012, the exhibition will examine the prominence of key players in the cultural milieu of modern Paris, many of them Jewish, and their influence on Vuillard’s professional and private life. The exhibition explores Vuillard’s continuing significance from the turn of the 20th century to the onset of World War II. Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940 brings together works from public and private collections in the U.S. and Europe. A quarter of the paintings have never been exhibited publicly in America before.

Vuillard’s career spans fifty years, from the fin-de-si√®cle to the German occupation of France. During his lifetime, Paris was the capital of the international avant-garde, the laboratory of new styles in art, music, poetry, and prose. Vuillard was at the heart of this creative ferment. In these decades, the work of vanguard artists was supported by collectors, gallerists, publishers, and theater impresarios who encouraged modernist cultural experiments. Vuillard had unusually close and sustained relationships with his patrons; some became intimate and lifelong friends. In this glittering cultural milieu he became romantically involved with two fascinating women, Misia Natanson and Lucy Hessel, each of whom served as both patron and muse.

Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940 traces the entire arc of Vuillard’s career, in which he pursued painterly experimentation in color, media, and ambience, especially in portraiture. The exhibition presents a selection from all stages of Vuillard’s long creative activity and is divided into the various phases of the artist’s career. He established his signature themes – interiors and the depiction of modern life – in the 1890s. As his style evolved, he continued to use pattern, texture, and the framing device of windows, doors, and mirrors, while extending his repertoire to the genres of landscape, still life, and especially portraiture. Vuillard’s late portraits are a revelation -among the great examples in the twentieth century and of dazzling virtuosity. Experimental, yet deeply committed to the old masters throughout his life, Vuillard maintained a continual tension in his work between tradition and modernism.

Selected exhibition highlights include two masterpieces of the Nabi period: Woman in a Striped Dress, from The Album, 1895, and Misia and Vallotton at Villeneuve, 1899. From the rich array of his portraiture, Marcelle Aron (Madame Tristan Bernard), 1914, uses the mirror dramatically to play tricks with space and perspective while a striking pastel portrait captures the appearance and character of the art dealer, Sam Salz, 1939. In work from the later period, Luncheon at Les Clayes, 1935-38, Vuillard’s sense of scale and free, energetic execution celebrate a world in which society and art are one.