Pierre BONNARD | Portrait of Vuillard [Portrait de Vuillard]

France 1867 – 1947

Portrait of Vuillard
[Portrait de Vuillard]
oil on wood panel
panel 14.5 (h) x 21.8 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchased with the assistance of Philippe Meyer 1993
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Away with easel-pictures! ... The work of the painter begins where that of the architect is finished … There are no paintings, but only decorations!1

So Jan Verkade, a contemporary and friend of the Nabis, recalled the group’s aspirations some forty years after its inception in 1889. This work, the odd shape of which suggests it was intended as a decorative chimney surround, provides a clear indication of the Nabis’ desire to break away from traditional modes of representation and to merge art with daily life.

Known as the ‘Japanese Nabis’, Bonnard was heavily influenced by Japanese prints, an exhibition of which he had seen at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1890. In Portrait of Vuillard Bonnard employs typically Japanese pictorial devices. Here we see Vuillard on the street, dressed in the clothes of an upper-class gentleman. Behind him walks a woman leading a child, whose face is visible at his right elbow. The spontaneous image has the feeling of a randomly snapped photograph. This invocation of chance, and the unusual pictorial composition that results, is typical of Japanese prints. The use of a large frontal plane (in this case Vuillard’s face) set against the blurred image of the woman and child creates a false sense of depth. The flat blocks of colour and minimal but decorative background also suggest a Japanese influence.

Bonnard and Vuillard met at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in 1889. Both were founding members of the Nabis and they remained close friends throughout their lives.2 It is of particular interest to note the similarities between the shape of this 1892 work and that of the 1891 oil-on-card sketch Vuillard in profile,3 another of Bonnard’s many portraits of his friend. Though executed in different styles, the two works appear to have been conceived as companion pieces for either side of a single chimney. Perhaps they were intended to decorate the studio that Vuillard and Bonnard shared with Denis in Montmartre’s Rue Pigalle. Or had Bonnard simply abandoned the idea, only to return to it with renewed inspiration at a later date?

Emilie Owens

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. Quoted in Nicholas Watkins, ‘The genesis of a decorative aesthetic’, in Gloria Groom, Beyond the easel: decorative painting by Bonnard, Vuillard, Denis and Roussel, 1890–1930, Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago 2001, p. 1.
  2. In his last letter to Bonnard, Vuillard wrote, ‘If I wrote to you every time I think about you, our past, painting, etc. you would have enough letters to fill a library’. See Guy Cogeval, Vuillard: Post-Impressionist master, New York: Harry N. Abrahams 2002, p. 126.
  3. Private collection. See Jean and Henry Dauberville, Bonnard: catalogue raisonné de l’oeuvre peint, vol. 1 (1888–1905), Paris: Editions J. et H. Bernheim-Jeune 1965, p. 102.