Jos and Lucie Hessel in the Small Salon, Rue de Rivoli, c. 1900–1905

Details     Description
Artist Vuillard, Edouard

During the 1890s Vuillard's greatest attachment, other than to
his mother, to whom he was profoundly devoted, was to the young
and capricious Misia Natanson, wife of one of Vuillard's most important
patrons, Thadee Natanson, for whom he did a series of decorative
panels in 1895. By the turn of the century, the brilliant world that surrounded the Natansons and their journal, La Revue Blanche, had shifted its artistic and intellectual focus; the journal itself ceased publication in 1903, its demise hastened
by Thadee's worsening finances. Perhaps an even harder blow
for Vuillard was Misia's divorce from Thadee to remarry into quite a
different world in 1905, this preceded by a troubled liaison with
Alfred Edwards, an immensely rich and onerous man who hastened
Thadee's financial collapse. As silent and withdrawn as Vuillard was
by all descriptions, these events must have meant a great sea change
in his life.
Salvation came through another woman with whom he formed an attachment, perhaps even stronger than that with Misia. She was Lucie Hessel, wife of the art dealer Jos Hessel, who directed Bernheim-Jeune, one of the most successful
galleries in Paris. After the turn of the century Edouard and Lucie
met nearly every day. Portraits of her and her friends, both
formal and as elements in his interior genre scenes, proliferated. Her
apartment on the rue de Rivoli and her houses at Versailles and in
Normandy became his second homes and the source of much of his
art. (Vuillard died at the beginning of the war, attempting to reach
her Norman house by train.)
Lucie Hessel could not have been more different from Misia Natanson.
She was tall, strong-jawed, and nearly Wagnerian in her
ardent manner, in contrast to the sensuous and subtle Misia. Her
world was grander and more conservative than that of the Revue
Blanche group: less daring, more aristocratic. The evolution of Vuillard's
style—particularly through the portrait commissions he received
from the higher levels of the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy
—reflected, at least in part, this shift in his social milieu.

Here Mme Hessel sits al a long table in her apartment on the rue
de Rivoli. reading or perhaps opening her morning mail. She is still
dressed in her peignoir. A large silver tray, holding a warming bell
(for her coffee?) and a porcelain cup, shares the tabletop with a
blooming Christmas cactus. A heavily shaded lamp projects from the
left. Beyond her on a red plush banquette, intent upon his writing on a drop-leaf desk, is Lucie's (and Vuillard's) close friend, Romain Coolus.
These two figures—Coolus a continuation of Vuillard's earlier life,
Lucie Hessel his new Egeria (the name given her by Vuillard's friends
for the muse like powers she had over him)—share the picture-filled
room with the intimacy of long friendship, each intent on his or her
own task. Yet, despite its snug contentment, the interior is presented
without the complex working of patterns and subtle spatial invocations
of those small, most intimate pictures of the 1890s.
The medium is laid on with fluidity and ease, a directness and a
seeming absence of calculation, that signal a new stage in the evolution
of Vuillard's style. The colours have become more brilliant—the
fuchsia of the blooming plant setting the tonality that reappears in
the gradations of the lampshade, swift strokes gaily suggesting the
images of the pictures on the wall, the shadows between the cushions
on the banquette balancing the light blue of Mine Hessel's robe. And
whereas Vuillard nearly always, even in the most completely developed
pictures of the 1890s, painted with directness and with little
or no build up, there is a new breadth here that suggests an easing
away from the intellectual formulations of the Nabis into a less analytical
Much is made of the exposed surface of the board that provides
the middle tones throughout. As opposed to the quick-drying distemper
paintings on this scale, which precede this picture, the oil
here is rich and deliciously viscous, allowing him to go back to the
paint—as he did, for example, in defining the lace panels on the
shoulders of Lucie's robe—with the end of his brush. Further, the
vague sense of mystery and the inexplicable, implied narratives of
the earlier interiors with pools of light have ceased here. We are no
longer entering the theatre in the middle of an act. Whereas the
lamp is quickly suggested, it is not the light source even for Mine
Hessel's work; the room is flooded with an undramatic, bright morning
There is a new maturity here, in the world that Lucie Hessel made
possible for Vuillard. The subtler and intellectually swifter world of
Misia is behind him. A new spontaneity has emerged; intimacy seemingly
is now achieved without the burdens of probing into things that
run too deeply. This is not to say that any of his powers have subsided.
The open armchair in the right foreground, for example,
presents as formidable a difficulty in formal spatial delineation as
any problem he presented himself with earlier, but now he established
it more loosely, allowing the form to dissolve onto the exposed
board. Vuillard seems more able to relax, and perhaps even to celebrate
the virtues of friendship and domestic calm, in a more accepting,
less urgent manner.


c. 1900–1905

Institution The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Medium Oil on cardboard mounted on canvas
Dimensions 36.8 x 56.8 cm














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