Sixty drawings by the painter Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940) are now on exhibition at the Phillips Collection here. These small harmonious sketches of small domestic dramas are among that modest master's most modest works of art.
Their humility is endless. They are, as was the man himself, charitable and gentle. He made most of them at home in the comfortably cluttered flat that he shared with his mother. "Maman is my muse," he said, and he really meant it. Nothing very special happened in their home, and nothing of importance happens in these pictures. A woman sits ans sews, a man plays the piano. Sunlilght strikes a mirror or the teapot on a table.
Though Vuillard was a colorist of extraordinary subtlety, the drawings here are black and white. Their beauties unfold slowly. What makes them remarkable is Vuillard's all-forgiving, all-accepting eye. Vuillard felt no need to censor what he saw. When he looked across the room, he saw everything at once: not just the woman standing there, but the round table beside her and the pattern of the table and the sunlight on the wallpaper and the open door beyond.
"I can still picture Vuillard," wrote his friend, Jacques Solomon. "He would suddenly look intently at an object or a group, not as painters usually do, considering the objects that interest them with one eye closed. . . His face would grow grave, and without taking his eyes off his subjects, he would whip his notebook out of his pocket, seize his Koh-i-noor 5B, and, without hesitation, start to draw . . . He did not identify the objects in front of his eyes . . . He did not separate things, he connected them."
"I think we make a great mistake," wrote Vuillard, "in demanding of a work of art that it should seduce us from the outset and give us pleasure of an immediate sort. How many mediocre, ephemeral, pointless paintings do just that? How many profoundly moving paintings do nothing of the sort?"
Vuillard's pictures move us in art because they never seem to reach for beauty. He paid no heed to fashion, nor did he strive for fame (between 1912 and 1938 he did not have a single one-man show in Paris). All his life, he refused to show off.
Vuillard outlived his period, but didnot seem to mind. When young, he was a modernist who through his good friend, Serusier, had learned the lessons of Gauguin, Before he was 21, Vuillard was a member in good standing of that cabal of young artists who called themselves "the Nabis" ("the Prophets"). But in the last years of his life he seemed a bit of an antique. The Fauves had come and gone; so, too, had the Cubists. But Vuillard remained a kind of Post-Impressionist, at ease with his masteries and his dimesticities until the very end.
"Let me generalize and say that I never, in any context, think of my actions in terms of quality," he wrote. "Remember what I'm like and how shy I am. The last thing I think of at such moments is how to seduce the observer or give him immediate pleasure of any kind. I well understand how repulsive such ideas must be to any serious person."
One sees that in these sketches. They are everywhere enriched by his tenderness, his sweetness, his great peace of mind.
His subjects rarely pose. In a drawing called "The Visit (1925), two women gossip quietly, as if the artist were not there. In his "Mrs. Vuillard," a work of 1920, his mother reads her newspaper taking no more notice of her sketching son than she does of the gleaming oval mirror behind her on the wall. The backgrounds and the froegrounds of Vuillard's little sketches interact as easily as do the truly wonderful colors of his oils.
The Phillips owns some beauties, and a number have been added to the drawing show. In "Woman Sweeping" (1892), the colors -- of her dress, of the huge chest of drawers beside her, of polished wood and leather -- seem to have been woven into one another as if into a tapestry of gleaming golds and browns.
"M. Vuillard," wrote Andre Gide in 1905, "speaks almost in a whisper -- as is only right when confidences are being exchanged -- and we have to bend over towards him to hear what he says. . . He never brings forward a color without making it possible for it to fall back, subtly and delightfully, into the background. Too fastidious for plain statement, he proceeds by insinuation . . . Harmony of tone is his continual preoccupation."
The drawings at the Phillips all come from the collection of Alfred Ayrton. They were selected by William S. Lieberman of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. John Russell of The New York Times wrote the essay for the catalogue. Organized by the American Federation of Arts, it will remain at the Phillips, where Vuillard's art seems at home, until March 15.