France 1868 – 1940
Public gardens: girls playing, the question
[Jardins public: fillettes jouant, l'interrogatoire] 1894
distemper on canvas
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Bequest of Mrs Alexandre Radot 1978
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
These are five of the nine-panel ensemble commissioned by Alexandre Natanson in January 1894. They were designed for the ground-floor salon of a residence on the Avenue du Bois (now Avenue Foch) in Paris. The central triptych hung along the long wall of a rectangular space that functioned as both living- and dining-room. The other two panels were hung together to the left of the triptych. Two further pairs hung at the right, and opposite, with two over doors completing the room.1 From a point in the centre of the room, the illusion of a circular panorama must have been extraordinary. Public gardens was installed at the end of 1894, and remained there until 1908.
Public gardens is variously reminiscent of tapestries, frescoes and Japanese screens. Distemper, Vuillard’s favoured medium, involved mixing dry pigments with a sizing (usually rabbit glue), then heating the mixture to a liquid state. It required the artist to work rapidly to achieve a distinctive, smooth, matt paint surface. The ensemble holds together via the sky and backdrop of vegetation linking the scenes, and by the gloriously patterned shadows across the foreground, and yet each panel is remarkably discrete. Vuillard’s radical tilting of the picture plane, the cropping and asymmetry of his composition, emphasise the decorative qualities of trees, grasses and flowering shrubs, as well as the fabrics of the figures’ clothing. These flat, decorative forms are partially a result of the medium but also reflect Vuillard’s admiration of tapestries, and his knowledge of Japanese art.
Children were one of Vuillard’s favourite motifs. In this work they play the leading role, darting around the enclosed space, watched over by their fashionably dressed nannies or by ladies who converse on park benches. Initially the artist may have planned to incorporate a number of city parks into the scheme, but in the end he limited the suite to the Tuileries Garden and the Bois de Boulogne, both of which were better suited to the panoramic program of the project.2 The public life of the Tuileries was both narrow and definite; since the bourgeoisie conformed to the upper-class standards and unofficial dress code of the once-royal garden, the Tuileries were the destination of a more exclusive and outwardly uniform group of social types.3 Vuillard, who had made his first decorative panels in 1892, completed eight different projects consisting of more than thirty pieces until 1899, most of which were commissioned by members of the Natanson family and their associates.
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
- The panels which hung to the right of the triptych, The promenade and First steps, are now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Tom Jones Company / Oxford Clothes; those opposite, The two schoolboys and Under the trees are in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, and at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland; the over doors may be those in the Françoise Marquet Collection, Paris, but other candidates such as those in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen, have also been proposed. For annotated sketches of the layout of the ensemble, see Guy Cogeval, Edouard Vuillard, Washington D.C.: National Gallery of Art 2003, cats 120–22, p. 181.
- Kimberley Jones, ‘The public gardens’, in Guy Cogeval (ed.), Edouard Vuillard, Washington D.C.: National Gallery of Art 2003, cats 116–24, p. 176.
- The promenade and First steps panels, on the other hand, contain a broader mix of social classes; see Gloria Groom, Beyond the easel: decorative painting by Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis, and Roussel, 1890–1930, Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago; New Haven: Yale University Press 2001, cats 32–33, p. 120.