Édouard VUILLARD | Sleep [Le sommeil]

France 1868 – 1940

[Le sommeil]
oil on canvas
canvas 33.0 (h) x 64.5 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchased from the aritst 1936
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Images of sleep, dreams, or loss of consciousness brought on by alternate states—of the body in its ‘pure’ form, and therefore closer to nature—were a favourite Symbolist theme. Both of these works by Vuillard show the combined influence of Synthetism, Symbolism, and Japanese woodblocks. Painted a year apart, in these paintings Vuillard portrays his sleeper in highly simplified form, using blocks of pale tones, and line to break up the areas of paint. The figures are daringly stylised, merging into the bed and surrounds: these are ambiguous images, full of a humour which verges on caricature. In bed is an unusually large, almost monochromatic canvas, broadly painted and evoking the muffled silence of deep sleep and dreams. Sleep is smaller, but possibly more radical, its subdued complementary tones capturing a sense of drowsiness. Both compositions are based on a network of lines, the horizontals and verticals enlivened by diagonals of the bedclothes and, in the case of In bed, the sleeper’s raised knees.

The neutral colour scheme of In bed is broken only by the face and hair of the figure, and the hovering ‘T’ shape—perhaps a traditional Christian cross, partially obscured by the canopy of the bed, or even a ‘thought-bubble’, the symbol of the sleeper’s dreams. The signature on high is as arbitrarily placed as a watermark. The stripe of pale green at top is echoed by the section of floor below. As Salomon and Cogeval point out, there is striking contradiction between the emphatic flatness of the sheets and blankets, and the shadows cast by them—creating an illusion of depth.1 The luxuriously puffy pillows, and the proliferation of downy pale fabrics, serve to cushion and protect the sleeper from the world outside.

In Sleep, the overall effect is reminiscent of a woodblock. Rather than paint outlines, Vuillard allows sections of the maroon ground to show through, outlining the painted forms. Details, such as the cast-off slippers and the folded clothes on the chair, merge into the tones of brown, cream and olive-green—only the orange of the garment on the chair breaks the neutrality of the scene. In both works the fusion of the figures with their surrounds seems to prefigure Vuillard’s large decorations such as Public gardens. In their solipsism and introversion, these works capture perfectly the uninterrupted sleep we all desire.

Lucina Ward

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

  1. Antoine Salomon and Guy Gogeval, Vuillard: the inexhaustible glance: critical catalogue of paintings and pastels, vol. 2, Milano: Skira; Paris: Wildenstein Institute 2003, cat. 123, pp. 142–44; Sleep is cat. 124, pp. 144–45.