France 1868 – 1940
oil on card, laid on wood panel
panel 63.0 (h) x 49.5 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Bequest of Carle Dreyfus 1953
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Vuillard and Vallotton were both members of the Nabis, and were especially close friends. In this portrait, Vuillard reveals this familiarity through the informal way he portrays his fellow artist. Thirty-six-year-old Vallotton appears unceremoniously perched on a side-table, rather than sitting in a chair, in his studio at 6 Rue de Milan, Paris. He wears casual clothing—a blue house suit (equivalent to a modern tracksuit) and slippers.
Despite the comfortable nature of this portrait, Vallotton is presented as a reserved personality. Even amongst his intimates he was not gregarious, and many of his self-portraits reveal his introverted character. Here Vuillard has painted him with his arms folded firmly across his body and his legs entwined under him. Defensively withdrawn into a corner of his own room, the resigned expression on Vallotton’s face suggests that the portrait was not his idea and that he is participating with reluctance. Interestingly, the physical attributes of the face are barely represented. The viewer’s eyes are drawn instead to the brilliance of the red slippers and then the blue of the house suit. His face is the last place that the viewer looks, despite being immediately drawn to the figure.
A contemporary critic described Vuillard as: ‘Above all … a painter of greys in which he produced the most unusual combinations’.1 While this portrait is predominantly composed of muted greys and beiges, the figure of Vallotton is accentuated by his colourful clothes. The brightness of the red slippers, contrasting with the white skirting board, makes them leap off the canvas.
Like many Nabis, Vuillard often focused on domestic interiors, as well as portraits. Here he has combined both, creating a very personal portrait of his friend in his studio. The art displayed on the surrounding walls establishes a special intimacy. To the figure’s left is a large Chinese silk painting depicting a wedding ceremony.2 To the right is one of Vallotton’s own woodcuts of famous authors, which included Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Edgar Allan Poe, although the rough nature of Vuillard’s sketch makes it impossible to discern whose portrait it is.
Félix Vallotton was produced shortly after Vallotton’s marriage to Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques, the widowed sister of the well-known Parisian art dealers Gaston and Josse Bernheim. Despite the obvious benefits his friend might have expected to enjoy from the alliance, Vuillard, a confirmed bachelor, disapproved. The inclusion of the Chinese wedding scene could be read as a jibe at Vallotton’s recent nuptials. Vallotton is also positioned in a comfortable middle-class setting because, in Vuillard’s eyes, after his marriage to the bourgeois Gabrielle, his friend was no longer a ‘starving artist’, like many of their colleagues. The furniture and patterned carpet—neither expensive nor down-at-heel—convey a secure domestic atmosphere.
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
- Adolphe Basler and Charles Kunstler (trans.), The Post-Impressionists: from Monet to Bonnard, London: The Medici Society 1931, p. 57.
- Qing dynasty (1644–1912), China, Wedding ceremony in front of ancient altar c. 1850, private collection.