France 1868 – 1940
The reader (Portrait of K.X. Roussel)
[Le liseur (Portrait de K.X. Roussel)] c. 1890
oil on card
card 35.0 (h) x 19.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Accepted in lieu of tax 1990
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Vuillard and the subject of this portrait—his future brother-in-law Roussel—met at the Lycée Condorcet and were lifelong friends. In 1889 both joined the Nabis group under the influence of Denis, a fellow student at the Académie Julian. By all accounts, the friendship that existed between Roussel and Vuillard was a case of opposites-attract. Vuillard, a reserved and exceedingly polite man, never married and lived with his mother until her death. He wore a perfectly manicured beard that made him appear old beyond his years, and his regimental appearance earned him the nickname ‘the Nabi Zouave’ (a reference to the North-Africa-based soldiers of the French Foreign Legion). Roussel, on the other hand, was a gregarious character. Attractive, intelligent and outspoken he read widely, and had a reputation as a ladies’ man. He married Vuillard’s sister Marie in 1893. The marriage, which produced two children, was evidently not a happy one.1
The reader is one of several portraits in which Vuillard depicts Roussel partaking in his most beloved activity. A look of rapt attention is captured on his face as he bends intently towards the page he is studying. His rather debonnaire green jacket contrasts strikingly with the red background of the work. Combined with the bright yellow upper third of the painting, these bold colours seem to suggest something of Roussel’s audacious personality.
The portrait dates from the earliest period of Vuillard’s painting career, when the influence of Synthetism is clear. The style, introduced to the Nabis group via Sérusier’s aptly renamed work The talisman, is evident in Vuillard’s application of bright colours in a flat, interlocking arrangement. Unlike Sérusier, however, Vuillard maintained a distance from the spiritual elements of Synthetism. Here he offers us a portrait of a man absorbed in the practical attainment of worldly knowledge.
As well as Synthetism the influence of Cloisonnism is obvious in The reader. The bold, simplified areas of pure colour are defined with a black outline, as in traditional cloisonné enamel work or even stained glass. Indeed, painted on a small card with rounded edges, and in brilliant colours, this work physically resembles the lid of a precious enamelled box.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
- For a more thorough examination of the relationship between Roussel and Vuillard, and Roussel’s marriage to Vuillard’s sister, see Guy Cogeval, Vuillard, Montreal, Montreal Museum of Fine Art; Washington D.C.: National Gallery of Art 2003, cats 8, 9 and 87, pp. 63 and 145.