Act 1, Scene 1: Morning. The curtain rises on a brightly papered bourgeois bedroom, sparsely furnished: A bed, a folding screen, two comfortable chairs. Three women -- Grandmother, Mother and Young Bride -- are busy preparing it for the approaching wedding night. The bride delivers her first lines to the audience.

Act 2, Scene 1: Afternoon. A bachelor's studio, bare except for a camp-bed and a clothes-hook -- and a woman's parasol abandoned in one corner. A raffish young man sits on the bed reading the newspaper. Offstage, someone knocks at his door.

Act 3, Scene 1: Night. A well-furnished dining room, harshly lit by gas. Upstage, a young woman silently begins to clear the table. Stage right and downstage, two men sit absorbed in sullen contemplation. A door opens stage left; enter Mother.

Afew choice moments from a wonderfully dramatic entertainment that premieres today at the National Gallery, and that must not be missed by any lover of fine art. The largest retrospective yet devoted to French painter Edouard Vuillard -- the first extensive survey since his death in 1940 -- presents 233 of the great artist's pictures. In the best of them, Vuillard uses all the arts of stage direction to build striking, cryptic worlds, strikingly portrayed. Vuillard's fascinating pictures don't so much observe reality as construct an alternate, theatrical reality that's worth our observation.

For the first few years of his career, in the early 1890s, Vuillard worked in avant-garde theater, helping to found a new company and designing playbills, sets and stagings for others. (The exhibition has gathered a roomful of this rare material.) That theatricality rubbed off on the fine art he made -- or maybe it was his naturally theatrical vision that suited him to working for the stage.

Certainly, the fraught reality of Vuillard's petit bourgeois life can be made to sound like something from a play by Ibsen or Strindberg -- playwrights, incidentally, whose Parisian reputations the painter helped to guarantee.

In 1868, in the French provinces, Vuillard is born, the son of an ex-marine become a minor bureaucrat. When Vuillard is only 9, the family moves to Paris, where they share a downtown apartment with his maternal grandparents. Father and grandfather soon die, and Vuillard is left to pass his teenage years with Grandmere Michaud and his dressmaker mother, and among the seamstresses brought in to cut and sew the clothes she sells. (He later painted this woman's world with outstanding sensitivity.) Still in his early twenties, but already beginning to make his name, Vuillard arranges for his dashing painter friend Kerr-Xavier Roussel to court and then to marry his spinster sister Marie, as yet unwed at 31. Things don't go well: Marie suffers a dramatic miscarriage, Roussel philanders and the couple separates; soon reunited with her much younger husband, Marie loses her second child when he is only 2 months old.

Vuillard himself never marries; he continues to live with his two female relatives until their deaths -- which in Maman's case doesn't come until 1928. (At the height of his career, when Vuillard vacations at rich patrons' country houses, he always finds his mother lodgings not too far away.) Vuillard's love life revolves around a series of women, sometimes married, who don't always return his affections. Freud would have had a field day.

But we don't have to do the same, digging deep into the artist's life to get a handle on his art.

The crucial, wonderful thing about Vuillard's art is not its strong grip on reality, either visual or biographical. It is its powerful artificiality.

Vuillard's colors aren't the subtle, carefully observed shades preferred by impressionism, the movement that dominated the art world of the artist's youth. Vuillard is famous for his unnaturally saturated oranges and sometimes shocking pinks and greens and yellows.

Vuillard's brush strokes are so crude they only barely hint at the real-life details they depict. But this isn't the brushwork of Titian and Rembrandt, or even of Monet, where the miracle is how such few, coarse strokes can cohere into impressive illusions of the real. In Vuillard, the separate dabs of paint are visible from almost any distance: They're meant to pull apart the world, not reproduce it. Just like the radically modern stage design that Vuillard helped to launch, you're supposed to notice how things are constructed in his peculiar fictive worlds, not suspend all disbelief and allow yourself to plunge right into them.

In a painting called "The Bridal Chamber" -- source of our "Act 1" -- the room that Vuillard represents is built from a few boldly painted surfaces, knocked together almost like a stage set's flats: The wallpapered rear wall is a kind of tiger orange, covered in a flattened, floral arabesque of black brush strokes; Vuillard's floor is a dull, hardwood brown, except where it is covered by a brightly patterned carpet, bolder than any real rug he likely would have known. The few "props" are also designed to speak to us and capture our attention: The marriage bed is hidden under a blood-red spread; the folding screen is a sparkling, golden yellow, almost like a gilt medieval altarpiece; the bride, at the center of the composition, wears a salmon-pink shirt that pulls the eyes of viewers -- of this domestic drama's "audience" -- right to her. In all his paintings, Vuillard chooses fabrics as a set designer might, for their immediate visual impact and for how they play off one another.

In "Kerr-Xavier Roussel Reading the Newspaper," the bachelor's studio is furnished with a bare minimum of significant objects, so that the viewer focuses entirely on its lone figure's actions, current and as imagined in the future. (A drawing for the picture shows that Vuillard edited out some details from real life that didn't serve his purpose.) As in many of Vuillard's best works, the untreated ground he's painting on, in this case raw plywood, is often left to show through as a mid-tone between his brightest whites and darkest blacks. It is one of Vuillard's trademark devices, captivating in its formal novelty. But it also reminds us of the making of the work, of its material reality as a piece of artifice; it pulls us away from any sense that the picture gives us access to an accurately observed world seen "through" the painted surface.

Finally, in "A Family Evening" -- the closing act in our little Vuillard drama -- we get the artist's typically stunning rendering of glowing artificial light, here cast by an oil lamp set on a table off to one side. Vuillard does not merely show off illusionistic skills at conjuring such light effects in paint, as artists had done for centuries before him. Like the lighting in a theater, Vuillard's artificial golden glow is all about the emotional effects it generates. The figure brooding in Vuillard's foreground is shown in silhouette, backlit so that his face is left in darkness. (Called "contrejour," this was always one of Vuillard's favorite dramatic devices.) His male companion, facing half into the room, gets a little splash of light around his eyes. The dining table, domain of the active younger woman, casts an ominous shadow all around it. Only the mother of the house, coming through the doorway right behind the lamp, is thoroughly lit. You could read her, metaphorically, as the only source of light in this domestic gloom -- but you don't have to. The eerie, artificial illumination in Vuillard's painting doesn't so much point to a specific symbolism, as tell the viewer that something strange is going on, and that it's worth attending to how that strangeness is constructed.

Vuillard may, or may not, have pulled his subjects from the domestic dramas of his life. (There's as much evidence for the overall happiness of his life at home, as for its few moments of pain.) But what matters is that his art deliberately exaggerates and stylizes things, so that quotidian reality gets freighted with an almost stagy depth of feeling and portentousness.

"A picture, before being a war horse, a nude woman, or some anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered by colors in a certain order." Painter Maurice Denis wrote those words in 1890. They became a kind of rallying cry for the group of radical Parisian artists known as the "Nabis" (from the Hebrew for "Prophet"), which included the 22-year-old Vuillard, his friend Roussel and Pierre Bonnard -- who went on to rival Vuillard for art-historical attention. Almost overnight, Vuillard went from tame exercises in academic naturalism -- the National Gallery has some of this early work on display -- to the most daring experiments in anti-natural modernism.

In a self-portrait from around this time, the painter's red beard is pictured as a flat field of uninterrupted orange paint, as though squeezed straight out of the tube. His blond hair is a flat patch of yellow. The lit side of his face is an island of pink, with a splash of bright vermilion to mark the shadows in his ear; the dark side is a strange jigsaw-puzzle shape in mottled brown. Such early works by Vuillard and his friends mark the most radical first steps toward the willful stylizations of 20th-century art. And Vuillard stuck with such radicalism for another decade at least, making pictures that never map too closely onto reality.

But Vuillard always seemed to use his stylizations to say things about the world -- or to make his created world speak to us in a certain way -- rather than simply for the sake of the picture's flat surface and the colors ordered on it. If the Nabis set art on the path toward pure abstraction, as is the standard claim, Vuillard didn't follow it very far. He always came back to the reality around him, or at least to the kind of potent distillation of it you might get in theater.

Even when they depict outdoor scenes, Vuillard's paintings often have the rhetorical, unreal effect of theatrical backdrops. In the middle 1890s, wealthy patrons involved with the Parisian vanguard began to commission Vuillard to do decorative mural panels for their homes. Several of these murals show idyllic scenes of Paris parks or country landscapes, but they can be almost as stylized as Vuillard's strangest interiors. Their unusually rough surfaces emphasize their flatness as works of art, and the artificiality of the scenes that they depict. Vuillard's mural landscapes aren't meant to convince you of the reality of what they show; they have to be imagined as suggestive, decorative backgrounds for the live domestic business that their owners act out in front of them.

Vuillard was a great admirer of medieval and Renaissance tapestry, and he must have imagined his own murals as having some of the same, explicitly constructed decorative effects. (Vuillard's early exposure to the textile arts, illustrated in the lovely pictures that he made of his mother and her helpers working fabrics, stood him in good stead. The brightly colored surface patternings he manages in his best paintings remind you of the era's boldly printed silks. Vuillard stitches together his picture's complex patterns just as his mother must have basted fabrics for a fancy dress.)

Somewhere around 1900, Vuillard's mural commissions mostly stop, as does his work in theater. His best work as a fine artist ends, as well. With growing success in his career, Vuillard migrated from the circle of bohemian patrons who sponsored his early work to a more established, staid social milieu. His new supporters were now in the haute bourgeoisie; their cultural conservatism seems to have rubbed off on his art.

The shallow, spare, theatrical spaces of his early works begin to disappear, replaced by a standard perspectival view into a world fully peopled and propped. This leaves Vuillard's bold Nabis technique at odds with the conventional scenes and spaces it is used to represent. On his way to becoming the leading portraitist of Parisian high society, Vuillard continues to favor the vehement brushwork of his early years, but there's now no special reason for him to be using it. Vuillard's brushiness becomes a kind of surface gloss, a superficial coating of vanguard style imposed on scenes and subject matter that might as well be based on photographs. (Vuillard got his first Kodak in 1897; judging from the dozens of conventional snapshots included in this show, I'm not sure it had all that much effect. At most, it may have subtly reinforced the more normal notions of represented space he began to adopt in his paintings.)

Most of the works from Vuillard's final decades are disappointing. They put him in the camp of those traditionalist hacks who, by the 1930s, had learned to overlay a drop of pseudo-modern style on their conservative techniques.

In this exhibition's paintings dated after 1910, Vuillard is only inspired to return to his original, exciting theatricality in a single picture, appropriately now owned by actor Sean Connery.

The painting shows a theater dressing room, papered in stripes of blue and rose, with a looming figure seated with his back to us and lit by the glare of two gas lamps. As the sitter puts his makeup on, the mirrors that he uses to construct his stage persona give us glimpses of his famous face and hands. He is Sacha Guitry, the Orson Welles, you might say, of French theater history, a triple threat as actor, writer and director -- and the perfect muse for what may have been Vuillard's last moment of deep inspiration.

Now playing at the National Gallery of Art: Edouard Vuillard uses all the arts of stage direction to build striking, cryptic worlds in works such as, clockwise from above, "The Bridal Chamber," "A Family Evening" and "Kerr-Xavier Roussel Reading the Newspaper."Choosing fabrics as a set designer might, for their visual impact and for how they play off one another: "The Flowered Dress."Not so much observing reality as constructing an alternate, theatrical one worthy of observation: Vuillard's "Embroidering by the Window (or Tapestry).""Sacha Guitry in His Dressing Room," a late Vuillard reflecting the inspiration that marked earlier works.