Ma­ter­nal muse

Matthew Den­ni­son is moved by this in­ti­mate por­trayal of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the artist and his mother

Country Life Every Week - - Exhibition -

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;­ Vuil­lard’s work will be fur­ther cel­e­brated in ‘Édouard Vuil­lard: The Po­etry of the Every­day’ at The Hol­burne Mu­seum, Bath (01225 388569; www. hol­, 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

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