Text by Geoffrey Smith
Arcadian Dreams / Symbolist Visions
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Vuillard never married and lived with his mother until her death at a number of addresses in Paris. In 1908 they moved into an apartment on the fourth floor of 26 rue de Calais in the Batignolles district in the north of Paris where they were to live for over 25 years.
The Batignolles area will always be associated with the birth of Impressionism a generation before – the Café Guerbois at 11 Grande rue des Batignolles was the regular meeting place of the artists who would form the core of the Impressionists but who were at the time known as the Batignolles group and many of them had lived in the area. Édouard Vuillard’s work was therefore part of a tradition of urban painting in the area and in these two paintings we can see that he is following in the footsteps of such painters as Monet and Pissarro who both produced many paintings of the Paris boulevards from the vantage point of the upper floor of an apartment block.
These two panels show the view of Place Vintimille (now renamed Place Adolphe-Max) from Vuillard’s flat. They are part of a commission for four panels from the playwright Henry Bernstein showing views of the square and rue de Vintimille which were to join four paintings by Vuillard, depicting street scenes in the Passy area of Paris, that Bernstein had purchased in 1908. The right hand panel shows Place Vintimille in overcast, rainy conditions while in the left hand painting a bright shaft of sunlight illuminates the foreground and highlights the facades of the buildings on the far side of the square. It seems that a trip with his close friend Pierre Bonnard to see Claude Monet at Giverny may have inspired Vuillard to take up the challenge of creating a series of pictures of the same motif under changing conditions of light.
The pictures have a flat, opaque quality resulting from Vuillard’s preference during most of his life for the use of distemper over oil paint and for cardboard (a very absorbent base) or board over canvas. Distemper – notoriously difficult to work with – is a water-based medium which is mixed with glue giving a fast drying time. Vuillard found it to be conducive to his methods for producing large decorative panels but after about 1900 he used distemper for most of his output of whatever type. Its rapid drying properties allowed Vuillard to build up layers of paint in some areas of his compositions (while leaving other parts in a relatively unworked state).
Vuillard first exhibited with the Nabis in 1900 and he maintained friendships with a number of former members of the group, most especially Ker-Xavier Roussel and Bonnard throughout his life. The philosophy of the group was neatly summed up by Maurice Denis in his famous definition of painting as ‘a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order’ and in many ways Vuillard continued to adhere to this approach throughout his career.
1908 Piet Mondrian: The Red Tree, The Hague, Gemeentemuseum
1908 Gustav Klimt: The Kiss, Vienna, Belvedere