Félix VALLOTTON | Misia at her dressing table [Misia à sa coiffeuse]

Félix VALLOTTON
Switzerland 1865 – France 1925
France

Misia at her dressing table
[Misia à sa coiffeuse]
1898
distemper on card
card 36.0 (h) x 29.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchase with the assistance of Nippon Television and Philippe Meyer 2004
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

In the late 1880s and early 1890s Vallotton produced reproductive prints after Rembrandt and Jean-François Millet, worked as a conservator, and began to write art criticism. From 1891 he made woodcuts, lithographs, book illustrations and a design for stained glass. It is inevitable, then, that when the artist began to devote himself to painting in the late 1890s, his work should reflect aspects of these other disciplines. Vallotton’s genre scenes, portraits and nudes are characterised by his use of flat areas of colour, hard edges and extreme simplification.

The unmodulated forms of the objects on the shelf behind the figure, the block-like shadows across her neck and torso, and the walls and floor of the room rendered as simple planes, are reminiscent of a woodblock print with colour applied. The ‘carved’ forms of the hanging towel, the fabric draped over the edge of the dressing table, and the strains of the figure’s hair, reinforce this connection. Vallotton even includes one of his own prints, framed on the wall. However, despite its graphic nature, the painting is also remarkable for its sculptural qualities: the matt surface, as well as the solidity and presence of Misia, are reminiscent of polychrome wooden figures.

In 1898 the Polish-born pianist Misia Godebska (1872–1950) was married to the Parisian editor and publisher Thadée Natanson, co-founder of La Revue blanche (The White Review). Bonnard, Vallotton, Vuillard and others were frequent contributors to the magazine, and Thadée and Misia held a unique place in artistic circles in fin-de-siècle Paris, the centre of a galaxy of composers, writers and artists. Vallotton was a regular visitor to the Natanson’s Parisian home, in Rue Saint-Florentin, and to their country house, ‘Le Relais’, at Villeneuve-sur-Yonne in Burgundy, where Misia at her dressing table was probably painted.1 A journal entry by Julie Manet, although written earlier, captures Misia as Vallotton painted her:

Mme. Natanson, charming in a light blue dress with a high waist, a very pretty white low-cut square collar, and short sleeves. She wore a necklace on her lovely rounded white neck. She played Beethoven’s C minor symphony in an extraordinary fashion, sad, noble, grave, suggesting all the instruments of the orchestra. She has a beautiful broad powerful way of playing, not at all French.2

Shown here in profile, in harsh light from an unseen source at left, Misia seems taut with concentration. We imagine, perhaps, the strength of her musical performance.

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. Two other portraits by Vallotton, both dated 1898, are Misia Godebska in Neue Pinakothek, Munich, and The hand kiss (The lovers) (Thadée and Misia) in a private collection; see Sasha M. Newman, Félix Vallotton, New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery; New York: Abbeville Press 1991, p. 107.
  2. Julie Manet, journal entry dated 18 September 1896, quoted in Arthur Gold and Robert Fizdale, Misia: the life of Misia Sert, New York: Knopf 1980, pp. 61–62.