Matthew Dennison is moved by this intimate portrayal of the relationship between the artist and his mother
Undoubtedly, Marie Vuillard was short in stature. black-and-white photographs taken with his hand-held Kodak camera by her artist son Édouard suggest a lack of ostentation, too; an unselfconsciousness, even selfeffacement. However, this diminutive figure is a feature of more than 500 images— paintings, pastels, lithographs, photographs—that were created by Vuillard during the long period mother and son lived together, an arrangement that only ended with Mme Vuillard’s death in 1928, when Édouard was 60.
there was no exaggeration in the artist’s explanation to his first biographer that his mother was his muse. She is central to this exhibition, as she was to much of Vuillard’s life and a significant corpus of his work. In the current collection of images, she is omnipresent, yet the assertiveness of Mme Vuillard’s presence varies.
An album of lithographs called Landscapes and Interiors, published in 1899, includes three depictions of a pinkpapered dining room. In the blancmange-coloured Interior with Pink Wallpaper I, the figure of Vuillard’s mother is a soft smudge, its flesh tints those of the wallpaper, with none of the luminescence of the hanging gasolier or the table lamp with its garland of egg-yolk light.
A small painting, Interior with Seated Figure (1893), plays with a similar composition, the artist’s mother glimpsed beyond
Mme Vuillard is central to this exhibition, as she was to her son’s life and work
an open door. In this case, she’s reduced to bold daubs of black and white, depicting her crisp blouse and long skirt. Like the figure in Interior with Pink
Wallpaper I, once noticed, she dominates the static image.
It’s appropriate that Mme Vuillard should appear in this way as a feature of the domestic environment mother and son shared. As in art, so in life. Mother and son shared a series of more or less cramped rented Parisian apartments, following the early death of Vuillard’s tax collector father, Honoré.
They worked alongside one another, too. Early widowhood demanded resourcefulness on Mme Vuillard’s part. Like her mother before her, she had acquired a small sewing business during her marriage. On Honoré’s death, it became her means of supporting herself and her two unmarried children, Édouard and a daughter, also called Marie, as well as her own ageing mother. She made frocks and corsets; she employed young women to help her. All this activity took place at home.
After he’d completed his artistic training at the Académie Julian and the École des Beauxarts, Édouard also worked from home, at first in a studio in his bedroom. His mother loomed large in his affections; she was equally prominent in his physical surrounds—as permanent a fixture as the wallpaper, an armoire and the long table at which she and her seamstresses quietly worked.
It appears to have been a harmonious arrangement and suggestions of claustrophobia in these modestly scaled works can as easily be interpreted as proofs of intimacy.
Repeatedly, Vuillard created images that illustrate his mother’s oneness with her surrounds, which he voluntarily occupied even after he achieved financial independence following his successful association with Galerie Bernheim-jeune from 1900.
The Lunch (1902), painted in a holiday house on the Normandy coast, presents a scarlet-frocked Mme Vuillard in a redpainted dining room. The paleness of her face and her grey hair command the viewer’s attention more forcefully than the larger expanse of white tablecloth. Unusually among this collection of images, Mme Vuillard stares at the viewer directly. Hers is a confident pose, befitting a figure entirely assimilated to her setting.
Vuillard had explored this process of assimilation in an earlier painting, Madame Vuillard arranging her Hair, in the Barber’s own collection. Here, a stout, stubby-fingered Maman pats her hair as she gazes at her reflection in a mirror. She is wearing a patterned dress and beside her is a patterned armchair; her own chair rests on a large-patterned carpet.
Vuillard’s depiction of the room, presumably his mother’s bedroom, is of tonal harmonies that provide a foil for the shapeless figure with hands upraised. It’s the figure’s thickly painted fingers that draw our attention— a sign of the vulnerability and depredations of age, but humorous, too, in their stiff, starfish pose.
Not all of these images point to humour, much as family relationships are intermittently spliced with tensions. In The Chat of 1893, Mme Vuillard is a plump, black-clad spider weaving her web and the paler figure of her daughter Marie is clearly in her thrall. Here again, Vuillard’s mother occupies the painting’s central space—the place she occupied in Vuillard’s life as well as his art. ‘Maman: Vuillard & Madame Vuillard’ is at The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham, until January 20, 2019 (0121–414 7333; www.barber.org.uk) Vuillard’s work will be further celebrated in ‘Édouard Vuillard: The Poetry of the Everyday’ at The Holburne Museum, Bath (01225 388569; www. holburne.org), May 24–September 15, 2019
Next week Horace Walpole’s collection at Strawberry Hill
Madame Vuillard arranging her Hair: pattern and tonal harmony merge her figure with the setting
The Laden Table (La Table encombrée) shows Mme Vuillard reading a book (right) and her grandchildren Annette and Jacques
The Open Window (La Fenêtre ouverte), painted in 1902–03 and reworked in 1915, is a naturalistic study of light and shade