Property from the Estate of William Kelly Simpson
Foregoing the dramatic lighting, the intense moodiness, and the affectation of a serious demeanor that an aspiring young artist might ordinarily bring to an early effort at self-portraiture, Edouard Vuillard devised during the early summer of 1891 a refreshingly original scenario for presenting himself to the world. As if answering a friend’s knock at his door, or simply heading out on his own, Vuillard—attired in his city best, sporting a fashionable straw boater and carrying a twist-handled cane—steps into view.
“This is the Nabi painter’s Bonjour Monsieur Vuillard,” as Guy Cogeval commented, a cosmopolitan take on the famous self-portrait of 1854, titled La Rencontre, in which Gustave Courbet—walking stick in hand—exchanges greetings with his friend Bruyas on the road to Montpellier (A. Salomon and G. Cogeval, op. cit.). Just as Courbet’s painting proclaims the very essence of his realist ethos, Vuillard described his appearance at the door in perfect accord with the latest, novel pictorial theories that he and his colleagues were exploring in their art.
Cogeval sited Vuillard’s Autoportrait à la canne et au canotier either at the artist’s family apartment at 10, rue de Miromesnil, “or more likely” in the rented studio at 28, rue Pigalle that the artist was sharing with Pierre Bonnard and the actor Aurélien Lugné-Poe (exh. cat., op. cit., 2003). Maurice Denis was a frequent visitor; in this small space, when he was not yet 20, he may have written portions of his essay Définition du néo-traditionnisme, published in 1890, which famously begins: “It is well to remember that a picture—before being a battle horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote—is essentially a plane surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order” (H.B. Chipp. ed., Theories of Modern Art, Berkeley, 1968, p. 94).
Precisely in this manner, we behold the figure of Vuillard, framed by vertical elements on either side. In a color scheme popular in Paris apartment corridors during the late 19th century, a panel of empire green surmounts the wainscoting in Pompeiian red. The artist likewise rendered in flat, unmixed tones his black coat and gray trousers, leaving the surfaces partly unfinished, allowing the color of the cardboard support to show through, an effect that suggests the glint of light on his silk vest, and a plaid pattern on his pants. Small patches of unpainted board also comprise the wallpaper pattern in the room behind the artist—one may imagine small, perched songbirds as the decorative motif.
Most surprisingly, several spots of unpainted board—that is, mere absences of paint—serve as Vuillard’s eyes and nostrils, the only indication of his facial features, although from this portrait one might easily recognize the artist in person from the cascade of his red-orange beard. Vuillard’s friends dubbed him “Le Zouave”, alluding to the baggy scarlet trousers worn by French light infantrymen. These imprecise suggestions in Vuillard’s handling of paint adhere to that other tenet which was then taking hold of modern painting—the Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé had advised: “Paint not the thing, but the effect it produces” (quoted in R. Lloyd, Mallarmé: The Poet and His Circle, Ithaca, p. 48). The overall effect of these unconventional pictorial choices suggests more a self-caricature than a formal portrait. The startling originality and sheer modernity of the result, however, marks this early effort with a uniquely classic status; this painting is consummately representative of progressive art in Paris during this ground-breaking period.
Vuillard’s interest in these timely ideas stemmed from contacts during 1889-1890 with students at the Académie Julian, a far freer learning environment than most such institutions in Paris, where he and close friend K.-X. Roussel met Bonnard, Denis, Henri-Gabriel Ibels, Sérusier, Ranson, and others, who admired the anti-naturalist and decorative agenda in Gauguin’s synthétiste approach to form and color. “The secret of [Gauguin’s] sway,” Denis wrote in 1903, “lay in his providing us with one or two very simple, incontestable ideas at a time when we were totally without guidance... He freed us from all the shackles that the idea of copying nature imposed on a painter’s instincts” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1972, p. 73). Banding together to discuss art and show their work, these young painters called themselves Les Nabis, from the Hebrew word for “prophet”.
After heading downstairs from the rue Pigalle studio in 1891, as attired in his Autoportrait, Vuillard may have then walked to one of favorite destinations—the theater—most often André Antoine’s Théâtre Libre, where Lugné-Poe worked as an actor and handled other production matters, or Paul Fort’s Théâtre d’Art. Lugné-Poe opened his own playhouse, the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre, in 1893. Vuillard was strongly attracted to the Symbolist theater, and attended early performances in Paris of plays by Hauptmann, Ibsen, Maeterlinck, and Strindberg. He designed his first programmes and sets for productions of these works in the year he painted the present Autoportrait.
The theater may seem an unlikely magnet for this artist, who faulted himself for his shyness and was inordinately constrained in his outward manner. “Vuillard is the most secret of men,” Romain Coolus, a lifelong friend, wrote. “The way he looks and the things he says do not tell us much about his nature, his character or cast of mind... Like most men who have an intense inner life, Vuillard has an almost physical horror of speaking about himself... People may have even suspected that his timidity is sometimes a mask for violences kept well under control” (ibid., pp. 88 and 89). The artist’s most intimate friends were aware that Vuillard had undergone a profound religious crisis as he reached the age of twenty; he steadfastly declined, however, to discuss the matter with anyone.
All that Vuillard witnessed on the theater stage—simmering, conflicting passions laid bare, the playing out of intractable destinies, the tragicomic impulses of human nature continually in flux—provided a powerful, formative experience for this rapidly evolving artist, leading him to a deeper understanding of himself, and how he might express these exigencies in his art. Vuillard had already become in 1891 an exemplary observer; he was sensitive, empathetic, and seemingly wise beyond his years. Embedded within the finest of the intimate interiors that Vuillard went on to paint during the 1890s are dramas of a different sort, on a smaller, domestic stage, but no less meaningful and always intensely felt.
With this portrait of the artist as a young man, by the young man, Vuillard makes his entrance.
Bonjour, Monsieur Vuillard—courage!
Property from the Estate of William Kelly Simpson
Autoportrait à la canne et au canotier
Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940)
The Cleveland Museum of Art and New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Edouard Vuillard, January-June 1954, p. 101 (illustrated, p. 40; titled Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat and dated circa 1892).
New York, M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., The Colin Collection: Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings and Sculpture Collected by Mr. and Mrs. Ralph F. Colin, Pamela T. Colin and Ralph F. Colin, Jr., April-May 1960, no. 11 (illustrated; titled Self-portrait, Le Canotier).
The Art Institute of Chicago, Edouard Vuillard, January-March 1972, p. 228, no. 7 (illustrated; titled Vuillard coiffé d'un canotier and dated circa 1892).
Sydney, Art Gallery of New South Wales; Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria and New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Modern Masters: Manet to Matisse, April-September 1975, pp. 232 and 268, no. 111 (illustrated, p. 233; titled Self-Portrait and dated 1892).
Salzburg, Galerie Salis, and London, JPL Fine Arts, E Vuillard, March-June 1991 (detail illustrated; titled Autoportrait and dated 1892).
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art; The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; Paris, Galeries nationales du Grand Palais and London, Royal Academy of Arts, Edouard Vuillard, January 2003-April 2004, pp. 79 and 83, no. 28 (illustrated in color, p. 83).
New York, Katonah Museum of Art, Eye to I: 3,000 Years of Portraits, October 2013-February 2014, p. 88 (illustrated in color, p. 25; dated circa 1891).
J. Davies, ed., Vogue, vol. 131, no. 1, 1 January 1958, p. 99 (illustrated in color).
S. Preston, "Current and Forthcoming Exhibitions" in The Burlington Magazine, vol. 102, no. 686, May 1960, pp. 227 and 129 (illustrated, p. 227, fig. 50; titled Self-Portrait and dated 1892).
A. Georges, Symbolisme et décor: Vuillard, 1888-1905, Ph.D. Diss, Université de Paris I, Sorbonne, 1982, p. 43.
E. Daniel, Vuillard: l’espace de l’intimité, Ph.D. Diss, Institut d'Art et d'Archéologie, Paris, 1984, p. 385 (illustrated, fig. 139; titled L'autoportrait au canotier and dated 1892).
P. Ciaffa, The Portraits of Edouard Vuillard, Ph.D. Diss., Columbia University, New York, 1985, pp. 111-113 and 383 (illustrated, fig. 25; titled Self-Portrait with Straw Hat and dated 1892).
S. Preston, Edouard Vuillard, New York, 1985, p. 20 (illustrated, fig. 25; titled Self-Portrait with Straw Hat and dated circa 1892).
M. Makarius, Vuillard, Paris, 1989 (detail illustrated on the back cover; titled Self-Portrait and dated circa 1892).
G.L. Groom, Edouard Vuillard: Painter-Decorator, Patrons and Projects, 1892-1912, New Haven, 1993, p. 8 (illustrated in color, p. 9, pl. 8; titled Bonjour M. Vuillard (Self-Portrait in a Straw Hat)).
A. Salomon and G. Cogeval, Vuillard: Le regard innombrable, catalogue critique des peintures et pastels, Paris, 2003, vol. I, p. 93, no. II-27 (illustrated in color, p. 93; detail illustrated in color, p. 71).
B. Thomson, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism at the Dallas Museum of Art: The Richard R. Brettell Lecture Series, exh. cat., Dallas Museum of Art, 2013, pp. 145 and 167 (illustrated in color, p. 145, fig. 128).
Estate of the artist.
Sam Salz, Inc., New York (acquired from the above).
Ralph F. Colin, New York (acquired from the above, 1953 and until 1985).
E.V. Thaw & Co., Inc., New York.
Acquired from the above by the late owner, 8 July 1992.