Text by Geoffrey Smith
Arcadian Dreams / Symbolist Visions
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On 29 June 1917 Edouard Vuillard travelled by train to Versailles in order to attend a concert in the chapel there. The music was a patriotic mix of French baroque pieces but Vuillard was not wholly engrossed in the performance for his programme (which survives) is covered with sketches of the neo-classical architecture he saw in the chapel. The mood of the painting which he generated with the help of these sketches is one of introspection; perhaps this is not unconnected with the pervasive melancholy of the times. Somehow the fact that we see no faces adds to this sense of reflective tranquility.
It is the architecture which dominates this composition, the column to the left together with its huge plinth forming a somewhat overwhelming foreground presence. The majestic scale of the building is further emphasised by the size of the figures on the opposite side of the gallery.
But it is the young woman’s ravishing deep golden hair that immediately catches the eye as it falls over her (beautifully complementary) powder blue dress. What sumptuous hair this is – the hair of a goddess – a glorious gold which is echoed in the frieze just below the ceiling, the stained glass within the classical window and the decoration of the balustrade. The area of the woman’s blue dress is extended to her right in the slightly greyer military tunic, a reminder of events not far to the north where the mechanised slaughter on the western front continued unabated. Perhaps the woman dressed in black in the centre of the picture is mourning one of the fallen.
Vuillard had been a member of the Nabis (meaning ‘prophet’ in Hebrew) – a group of artists founded by Paul Sérusier in 1888 and whose membership included Vuillard’s great friend Pierre Bonnard as well as Maurice Denis and Ker-Xavier Roussel. By the time this picture was painted the group had long ceased to exist but aspects of their shared aims were still influential in regard to Vuillard’s art, especially an emphasis on the decorative purpose of making a painting and a use of slightly muted colours. This aspect of Vuillard’s technique – the distinctive matt finish was achieved by his use of distemper – a mix of water based pigments and glue, resulting in a fast drying paint which can be difficult to work with. However Vuillard found it to his taste and this curious choice of medium producing such a characteristic surface texture, not unlike fresco, also connects his work with that of the hugely influential Pierre Puvis de Chavannes whose output was also an inspiration for him.
1917 Egon Schiele: Town among the Greenery, New York, Neue Galerie
1917 Oskar Kokoschka: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, Vienna, Belvedere
1917 Francis Picabia: Parade Amoureuse, Washington, National Gallery of Art
1917 Marcel Duchamp: Fountain, Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne - Centre Georges Pompidou