The Private World of Édouard Vuillard

Born in Cuiseaux, France, in 1868, Édouard Vuillard was a French painter, decorative artist and printmaker. The son of a retired army officer, his remarkable body of work is central to the history of modern art. Here, author Julia Frey reveals why she called her new study of Vuillard’s life and art Venus Betrayed.


From his early paintings, where women disappear into complex compositions of textiles and wallpaper, to the ‘late woolly Vuillards’, as John Ashbery called them, through thousands of paintings in many styles, over more than 50 years, Vuillard constantly contrasted symbolic beauty and love to real women and men, even posing models beside a cast of the Venus of Milo.

Vuillard’s paintings are also full of striking, distractingly gorgeous patterns, colours and objects. One wonders what is hiding behind them. They are full of feeling and mystery, but the ‘story’ is never explained. How has love betrayed him, and how has he betrayed love?

The Dressmaker’s Shop (panel 2 of Desmarais decorations; also known as The Garment Fitting), 1892, oil on canvas, 48 × 117 cm.

The body of Vuillard’s work is ‘supremely strange’, as art critic Jed Perl once said.  For a while, in the middle of Abstract Expressionism, critics declared that he only did interesting work before he was forty. One should only like ‘the early ones’, they claimed. Later they said he ‘sold out’, changing his style for filthy lucre. Now he is widely recognised as a painter’s painter, a defining influence on major artists like Kai Althoff, Pe-ter Doig, Howard Hodgkin, David Park, Fairfield Porter and Alex Katz. Yet there has never been a full biography of Vuillard.

When I began studying the artist, people announced that there was no biography of Vuillard because his life was totally boring. Shy, reclusive, he lived with his mother until he was 60 years old.  But I immediately thought that any man who lives with his mother until he is sixty has something to hide.

The turning point of his life came when he was 15. His father died, leaving a hole, like a dropped stitch, that changed the weave of his life. He decided not to follow his father into a military career. After years of suffering from crippling battle wounds, Honoré Vuillard, unable to support his family, had left them impoverished. Vuillard’s diary never mentions him. Except for one drawing, created shortly after his father’s death, Vuillard never made a picture of him. His father became pure absence.

In his grief and emptiness, the depressed teenager lost faith in everything. Vuillard’s mother, grandmother and sister started making corsets in the dining room so the two sons could go to good schools. Vuillard, encouraged by his best friend (who later was married, unhappily, to Vuillard’s sister) finally found consolation in art. Given his family’s lower-middle-class background and desperate financial situation, the decision to be an artist was an improbable choice. Had he entered the marines as expected, he presumably would have earned a regular living. But he wanted only to do art. Knowing he had to support himself, craving to prove his heroism by taking responsibility for his needy family, Vuillard was also full of private longings: for freedom, sex, luxury and glory. In one of the few non-ambivalent acts of his life, he decided to attain these goals through art — to make a living in the dreamy world of the imagination. Failure was virtually assured.

Although he painted men many times, Vuillard once declared that he didn’t like doing their pictures –- he found men ‘ridiculous’. Women predominate, notably his mother, who appears constantly, almost daily, in drawings, lithographs and paintings — sometimes calm and peaceful, other times ugly and tortured.

Mme Vuillard Lighting the Mirus (or, Mme Vuillard Lighting the Stove), February–April 1924,
oil on paper, mounted on canvas, 58.1 × 68.9 cm.

His paintings are mostly of everyday interiors that critics tend to call ‘intimist’, but they are unexpectedly fraught with emotion and ambiguity. As Peter Schjeldahl observes, he ‘wrung poetic drama from unremarkable scenes’ using ‘excruciating colours, smouldering tonalities, dense patterning, and loamy build-ups of paint’.  But his art explains nothing. His works only imply.

His discretion – or to put it baldly, his secretiveness – was so strong that teachers and friends commented on it even in school. Until he died, he led many secret lives, hiding the women he loved from each other and from his mother, whom he also loved. Moreover his need to ‘make it’ as an artist forced him into constant conflict between his desire and his ambition. His works read like clues in a detective story. My book, Venus Betrayed: The Private World of Édouard, aims to decipher the patterns in his life as they formed and were formed by the art he made.

– Julia Frey

Julia Frey is emeritus professor of French and Art History at University of Colorado, and a successful artist, printmaker and writer. Her books include the critically acclaimed biography Toulouse-Lautrec: A Life (1994), which won a PEN literary award. Venus Betrayed: The Private World of Édouard is available to order from our online shop.