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A French avant-gardist, dramatically reframed

Special to The Times

Edouard Vuillard, the red-bearded French painter of small, intimate scenes and large decorative panels, stood at the height of the avant-garde in art during the 1890s. No one seemed more daring than Vuillard and his associates in Paris. But time -- and the likes of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse -- swiftly passed them by.

As Vuillard’s friend and fellow painter Pierre Bonnard once wrote: “The pace of progress speeded up, society was ready to accept Cubism and Surrealism before we had achieved what we had set out to do. We were left, as it were, hanging in the air.”

Vuillard was never really neglected. But art historians tended to look on him as a flash that flickered out before the end of the 19th century. This view was held even though Vuillard, who died in 1940 at 71, painted well into the 20th century. In recent years, however, Vuillard has been treated with more seriousness and studied with greater intensity. The first fruit of the recent Vuillard scholarship is a retrospective of more than 200 works that opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in January. After it closes there in April, it travels to Montreal, Paris and London. It is the first Vuillard retrospective since one in Paris in 1938. The present show is of grand scale because the chief curator, Guy Cogeval, director of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, has tried to showcase Vuillard’s greatest paintings while revealing a new view of his life. To bolster this biographical side, Cogeval has included lesser known Vuillard works such as his theatrical programs and posters, photographs, early 20th century landscapes and later portraits. Moreover, Cogeval believes that many of Vuillard’s best-known paintings represent scenes from a dramatic personal story, and the curator includes batches of these scenes to complete the story.

Cogeval’s view of Vuillard’s life comes from six years of study of the artist’s private papers, now in the hands of Antoine Salomon, grandson of Vuillard’s sister. Vuillard, a bachelor who lived with his mother until he was 60, has often been described, as Cogeval puts it, as “a monkish recluse” who was “too shy to be a man about town.” Cogeval has unearthed evidence of several significant love affairs, and Vuillard’s letters and journal make it clear, according to Cogeval, that he was a “colorful, quietly bossy and sometimes bad-tempered character” who had many friends in Paris.

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Much of Cogeval’s evidence will be laid out in a three-volume critical catalog of Vuillard’s paintings and pastels that will be published in April. In the meantime, it informs the National Gallery’s show.

In 1889, when he was 20, Vuillard joined a group of Paris painters who called themselves the Nabis, the Hebrew word for prophets. The Nabis included Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Kerr-Xavier Roussel and a few others.

They rejected both classical realism and the Impressionists’ attempt to capture the shimmers of outdoor light on canvas. They wanted their paintings to reveal inner emotions rather than outer reality. Often decorative and colorful, the Nabis’ work fit easily into the Art Nouveau movement in the 1890s and the early 20th century.

The show links Vuillard’s work in the theater, where he made sets and programs for playwrights like Henrik Ibsen, to the moody, dramatic quality of his paintings. And it links his emphasis on pattern to the fact that his widowed mother ran a corset and dressmaking shop at home, thus exposing the artist to an array of textiles. His focus on luxuriant wallpaper, drapes and clothing sometimes makes it difficult to see where a dress ends and a wall begins; people seem to slip into the walls or furniture.

Cogeval’s research has come up with a story line for most of the scenes. In 1893, for example, Vuillard engineered the unhappy marriage of fellow Nabi Roussel to his spinster sister Marie.

In “The Suitor” (1893), the handsome Roussel slips into the Vuillard family apartment through a wallpapered door while Marie, seen from the back, looks up with anticipation. In “Interior With Red Bed,” painted the same year, an ebullient Marie is preparing the apartment she will soon share with Roussel.

By 1895, the marriage was in grave difficulty, mainly because of Roussel’s refusal to break off a long-standing affair. In “A Family Evening,” Vuillard depicts a dark, melancholy mood with a dejected Roussel in shadows in the foreground while Marie, her head bowed, sets a table in the background. According to Cogeval, Roussel would soon abandon the home for a few months, the first of many separations.

Even while painting his dark intimate scenes, Vuillard turned out large decorative panels that brimmed with light and joy. In 1894, he was commissioned to paint nine panels called “The Public Gardens,” meant to look as if they were windows looking on to the Bois de Boulogne and the Tuileries.

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Vuillard used medieval tapestries as a model for the panels and painted them on canvas with distemper -- a pigment mixed with hot glue. He had learned to use that medium while painting stage sets. Distemper dries quickly and leaves matted, muted colors. “The Public Gardens” were sold in several lots at auction in 1929. The exhibition unites them for the first time since then.

The Nabis disbanded in the early years of the 20th century, and Vuillard turned to landscapes and, after World War I, to large portraits, although he insisted, “I don’t paint portraits. I paint people in their homes.” The exhibition offers more than 20, including portraits of three of his lovers, Lucy Hessel, Lucie Belin and Juliette Weil. As ever, Vuillard was fascinated by the interiors of his sitters’ homes, but the portraits lack the colorful, near abstract intensity of the earlier intimate paintings.

The first reviews of Cogeval’s exhibition have been mixed, and the differences underscore the curator’s new direction. The enormous size of the show troubled New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman, who wrote, “Few artists look good when 200 or 300 paintings are shown together.” The size reflected Cogeval’s attempt to relate the paintings to Vuillard’s life; Kimmelman wasn’t persuaded.

Washington Post critic Blake Gopnik, on the other hand, accepted Cogeval’s narratives, calling the exhibition “a wonderfully dramatic entertainment ... that must not be missed by any lover of fine art.”

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‘Edouard Vuillard’

Where: National Gallery of Art, National Mall between 3rd and 9th streets at Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, D.C.

When: Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-

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6 p.m.

Ends: April 20

Price: Free

Contact: (202) 737-4215

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