Beyond the Easel:

Decorative Painting by Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis, and Roussel 1890-1930

by Donald Goddard

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Poetic Arabesques Ceiling
Maurice Denis (1870-1943).
Ladder in Foliage, or Poetic Arabesques for the Decoration of a Ceiling,1892. Oil on canvas, mounted on cardboard, 92 1/2" x 67 3/4". Musée Départemental Maurice Denis "Le Prieuré," St.-Germain-en-Laye.

Most of the paintings in this exhibition are landscapes with figures, some interiors also, but mostly landscapes associated with country homes, city parks, people at leisure, children, and scenes from Classical and Christian mythology. They go back, I suppose, to the figure landscapes of Nicolas Poussin, the great founder of the French classical tradition, but even further back than that, specifically at times, to Medieval tapestries. They were made or commissioned for specific places in specific houses, apartments, or public buildings, for overdoors, wall panels, ceilings, and screens.

Their creators meant them to be intrinsic to the décor of the space, to be decorative in the most complete French sense of the word, to revive for well-off patrons the aristocratic tradition of total décor that had existed in the 18th century. One was meant to live in the decorated space as a total environment, transported beyond the mundane world.

Leading this reformation was a group of very young artists--the four in this show along with Aristide Maillol, Félix Vallotton, Jan Verkade, and others--who established themselves in 1888 as the Nabis (Hebrew for prophet). They stressed the formal aspects of painting--the manipulation of form, line, and color--in reaction to what they felt was the informality, or formlessness, of Impressionism--and sought to transcend the limitations of easel painting as an illusionistic window on nature. What they were doing, of course, was creating an illusionistic window that was all-encompassing, that would engage the viewer's, or participant's, senses completely, and that would, in some cases, transport the viewer to another realm entirely, sanctifying the world. It took money and a high level of culture to support such an aesthetic, and fortunately both were available to the Nabis in the form of magazines that would publish their work, galleries that would show and sell their work, patrons who would commission their work.

Afternoon of Faun
Ker Xavier Roussel (1867-1944).
Afternoon of a Faun, ca. 1930.
Distemper on canvas, 78 3/4" x 126".
Musée Départemental de l'Oise, Beauvais.

Ironically, or perhaps predictably, none of the "decorative" paintings by the Nabis -- including those in this show, of course -- are still in their original places. They have all been sold, put up elsewhere, and in some cases even cut up so that they might be sold more easily. The world in which they existed is gone, the fortunes and people upon whom they depended are gone, and their rationale is gone along with the excellent hope that the world might be transformed by art. So now they can only be seen in museums, pieced together to give us some idea of the effect they might once have had (for this show several of the individual paintings have been brought together for the first time since their separation). It is a strange fate for an art so insistent on its idealism. In the end it suffers what all surviving art suffers -- lack of context, except that of our own knowledge, intellect, and feelings.

But the effect is remarkable. The décorations tower above us and spread out as though that other world really did exist. In Denis' Ladder in Foliage, or Poetic Arabesques for the Decoration of a Ceiling, 1892, commissioned for the house of his friend, the painter Henry Lerolle, four women in flowing gowns ascend a wide ladder in the treetops seen against the sky. It is a vision, perhaps even an allegory, but a real vision, something that could be, that is. There is an order of abstraction, from the sensually commanding figures of the women (probably all modeled on Denis' wife Marthe) to the sea of shaped leaves to the silhouettes of sky and clouds. The whole is woven together in a curvilinear pattern that also defines the images.

Pierre Bonnard's Vernon
Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947).
The Terrace at Vernon, or Décor at Vernon,
Oil on canvas, 58 1/4" x 76 3/4".
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, gift of Mrs. Frank J. Gould, 1968.

Given the abstraction and spirituality of Denis' work, it is striking that his idealism finds expression in such overt physicality. He devoted himself to religious art from the early 1920s on, which seems now like a logical extension of his belief in the physical reality of the spirit. This was preceded in the first twenty years of the century by a series of rather raucous decorations, referred to as his "mythological beaches," that curiously complement his devout work, both early and late. The scenes are classical--Eurydice, Beach with Small Temple, Nausicaa, Bacchanale--full of mostly nude women played out rhythmically in groups against sand, water, mountains, and sky (and trees in the first one). It is an enchanted landscape in which the origins of the world are enacted as a kind of ritual female dance.

Roussel was also devoted to classical themes in most of the decorative panels he did between 1910 and 1930, including Triumph of Bacchus, Abduction of the Daughters of Leucippus, The Sleep of Narcissus, and variations on Afternoon of a Faun in this exhibition. His approach is far more impressionistic than Denis', more secretive and elusive in the way figures merge with and turn into the landscape, as though nature itself was a much larger force than human activity. And indeed in his earliest work, two versions of The Seasons of Life, 1892-93, and Conversation on a Terrace, 1893, decorative studies that were never used, the gowned figures of women are imbued with mystery rather than divine energy. They enact a "sacred conversation" in a setting that they are part of but not continuous with. Still, both Denis and Roussel are intent on replacing our normal time frame with another, one that reaches a higher level of consciousness.

Edouard Vuillard's Album
Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940).
Oil on canvas,
26 11/16" x 80 1/2".
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,
The Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg Collection,
partial gift of Walter H. and Leonore Annenberg, 2000 (2000.93.2).

  Bonnard and Vuillard, on the other hand, remain in our normal time frame, in which the present becomes the past immediately and reaches, by its memorialization in art, particularly encompassing, environmental art, another level of consciousness. Some of Bonnard's subjects are mythological, for instance, a decorative ensemble he did in 1906-10 on various Arcadian themes and another series of 1916-20 that includes Earthly Paradise. But more often than not he is concerned with scenes of bourgeois life, early (1890-1900) with women and children in the streets, in parks and gardens around Paris (mildly satirical at times), later (after 1900) in the country settings (in Normandy, then Provence) to which he was gradually retiring. The flat, tapestry-like patterns of his early work, which seem to have influenced Vuillard rather than the other way around, are replaced in later work by kaleidoscopic mosaics of glowing color that make his landscapes and interiors intensely seductive.

But his figures are increasingly lumpen and indolent, downcast and depressive in a way that the paradise in which they find themselves cannot relieve. In fact, all Bonnard's shapes have an awkward presence. But his figures particularly have a repressed, menacing quality, so it is not surprising when there is an eruption of irrational pathology in a painting like The Terrace at Vernon, 1920-39, in which the woman on the right lunges inexplicably toward the obdurate female figure in the center (the juxtaposition has been identified as a reference to Bonnard's own personal entanglements). Unlike Matisse, with whom he became close in his later years, Bonnard could not quite submerge human personality and conflict in the obliterating context of brilliant color and design. He was just not terribly aware of their importance--or maybe he was too terribly aware.

For Vuillard, from the beginning, human activity and human form were part of the fabric of life, literally in the case of several early paintings devoted to his mother's dressmaking workshop. Whereas Bonnard's figures are disengaged and distant, psychologically if not literally, Vuillard's are always engaged, in conversation, sewing, reading, watering plants, tending children, playing games, working, or simply walking in the landscape. Everything is different and everything is connected in an overall pattern. The differentiation of surfaces is extraordinary in The Series of Five Decorative Panels Known as "Album," 1895, which Vuillard painted for the Paris apartment of Thadée and Misia Natanson, his most important patrons of the 1890s. The women's faces are smoothly outlined and shaded; real flowers are painted differently from wallpaper flowers; one kind of brushstroke creates the stripes of a blouse, another the velvet cover of a couch. It is a refinement of what Van Gogh managed to do earlier with brushstrokes. Not only is everything, including human figures (women), given equal importance, as most writers notice, but everything is given special importance in an infinitely various world that is also an integrated whole.

Vuillard's Place Vintimille
Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940).
Place Vintimille, or Berlioz Square,
1915-16, reworked 1923.
Distemper on canvas,
64" x 90".
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York,
promised gift of Anonymous Donor.

There are distinctions but no gaps, even when there are disruptions. Vuillard painted Place Vintimille, the park he saw from his window in Paris, three times for decorative works. The last time was in 1915-16, when the sidewalk was being torn up and renovated in the middle of World War I. We are confronted directly by the trench that stretches across the foreground (perhaps a reference to the battlefield) where workmen prepare the new sidewalk. Still, children play in the park, people sit on benches, the trees spread out singularly but in abundance, and through them can be seen the line of apartment buildings on the other side of the park. Near the very center of the painting are the tiny figures of a man and a woman seated on a bench on the far side of the park, the man reading a newspaper, the woman wearing a red skirt. It is the only spot of real red in the painting, as though it were saved just for her, and it makes us notice every other detail of this grand tapestry. More than any of his confrères, Vuillard, the citydweller, was a man of nature, echoing the philosophy of the American conservationist John Muir, who wrote in the late 19th century, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything in the universe," and of Muir's contemporary, the English naturalist and novelist W.H. Hudson, who wrote, "We are no longer isolated, standing like starry visitors on a mountain-top, surveying life from the outside; but are on a level with and part and parcel of it."

Donald Goddard © 2001

The exhibition originated at The Art Institute of Chicago and travelled to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 5th Avenue and 82nd Street, New York, NY 10028
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