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Edouard Vuillard: Behind Closed Doors

Edouard Vuillard was not as widely known as the Impressionist masters. But he created more than 3,000 paintings between the late 1800s and his death in 1940. NPR's Susan Stamberg tours the most comprehensive exhibition of the French artist's works, premiering this week at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Vuillard was best known for intimate, indoor looks at the private lives of his subjects. These domestic scenes feel "very claustrophobic," curator Kimberly Jones says. "You can almost feel the walls closing in in some cases and that's very much intentional. This is the world behind closed doors, an intimate private world that we live but we don't get to see. So we become a voyeur."

The artist was influenced by his mother, who was a corset-maker in Paris. Jones notes that Vuillard grew up in this "highly feminized world surrounded by women at work, surrounded by patterns and fabrics and rich colors."

That world was reflected in his early canvases, Stamberg reports: "Small paintings, in the 1890s, of quiet domestic scenes, women sewing in rooms papered in dense dots of flowers and stripes." In The Stitch, from 1893 -- one of the many paintings featuring his mother -- Madame Vuillard is seen at a table absorbed in her work, her arm extended as she pulls a thread.

In Jeanne Lanvin, Vuillard shows a very different kind of dressmaker. Designer Jeanne Lanvin, founder of one of Paris' great fashion houses, is seated at her desk, surrounded by the brightly colored spines of fabric and pattern books, a drawing pencil, and a telephone. "We feel we're in the room with Jeanne Lanvin, sampling her environment," Stamberg says.

And that was Vuillard's goal. "I don't paint portraits," he said. "I paint people at home."

Vuillard was part of an artistic group called the Nabis, a word from Hebrew and Arabic that means "prophet." Unlike the Impressionists, who sought to capture the fleeting effects of light in the outdoors, the Nabis used art to communicate interior feelings and to convey emotion.

Vuillard did not restrict his subjects to the indoors. Curator Philip Conisbee's favorite Vuillard painting is Place Vintimille, a five-paneled screen of a park in Paris as seen from the window of the artist's Montmartre apartment. Unlike Vuillard's interior scenes, which one might imagine have the odor of mothballs, this one could smell of almond blossom. "And you can hear the sounds coming up from the street," Conisbee says. "There are children playing, there are carriages going by, there are people walking their dogs, you can hear the chatter of people sitting and playing in the park."

Stamberg finds that the park in Place Vintimille is "not exuberant, the way Monet or Renoir parks can be. Vuillard's park -- with its chalky colors -- is looked upon, but not reveled in. He paints more landscapes over the years, but his heart seems rooted indoors, with people and their pursuits."

The exhibition remains at the National Gallery of Art through April 20. After that, it is scheduled for showings in Montreal, Paris and London.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.