This painting depicts, from left to right , Mme Michaud, Marie Vuillard, Alexandre Vuillard and Vuillard’s mother at dinner. It was probably not painted from life, but perhaps with the aid of Vuillard’s Kodak camera. It probably dates from 1891 since the handling of Marie’s dress is related to that of the girl in Woman in a Check Dress Darning a Stocking, firmly dated to 1891.
The small-scale, domestic character of this painting initially seems to place it outside the context of the Pictorial Symbolism which Vuillard’s fellow Nabis had inherited from Gauguin. However, reference to the current interpretations given to similar subject matter in Ibsen’s plays suggests otherwise. Both Count Prozor, in the preface to his translation of Ibsen’s The Doll’s House (1889) and Maeterlinck , in a long article on the March 1893 produciton of The Master Builder at The Theatre de l’Oeuvre , pointed out that Ibsen intended his sequences of mundane, domestic events to be read not as Naturalistic description but rather as symbols. Indeed, Maeterlinck went further. He saw an affinity between contemporary developments in music and painting and the theatre of Ibsen. The absence of detailed action in Ibsen’s plays revealed the ‘serious tone and tragic secret hidden within everyday life’ , in the same way that the consciously distorted representation of the external world in recent avant-garde painting draws attention to the greater spiritual meaning within the physical appearance of object in nature. Given Vuillard’s interest in Ibsen throughout the 1890s, (he designed sets and programmes for the March 1893 production of the Master Builder), it seems reasonable to suppose that paintings such as this on and Madame Vuillard Sewing , described as intimist paintings, have a more symbolic intention rather than being mere exercises in light, patterned surfaces and the evocation of everyday life.