A demure woman in a pink kimono stands to the side, her hands and arms wrapped in swaths of silken cloth. Behind her sits a three-story house dappled with warm patches of sunlight. All around hundred and hundreds of flowers grow. Back in the distance a tiny man (the gardener?) carries a basket over his head. It’s the paradise of spring that we all long for in February.
At first glance, this is all there is to see in Edouard Vuillard’s painting Garden at Vaucresson. A second look, however, reveals another woman directly across from the first, disguised by the flowers in the foreground as if by a scrim of floral cloth. She looks up at the woman in pink, seemingly engaged in conversation, and she reaches toward the flowers to pick one.
Why paint a figure in such a way that she blends into the scenery? Why hide one of the main actors in this everyday drama?
We can’t know the answers to these questions without learning a little bit more about Vuillard’s life and painting aesthetic. Working just outside Paris in 1920, Vuillard painted Garden at Vaucresson when he was staying at the home of the married couple Jos and Lucy Hessel. Jos was an art dealer who sold Vuillard’s work. Lucy was Vuillard’s muse and lover. In this painting she is the figure on the left, the one partially obscured by the flowers. The other woman, the one in pink, is Lucy’s cousin. The relationship between the Hessels and Vuillard must have been a complicated one, since Vuillard loved Lucy deeply and lived with the couple off and on in their home. Meanwhile, he and Jos ostensibly remained friends.
It might be tempting to say that Lucy is hidden in the painting because Vuillard’s affair with her was also partially obscured. This explanation falls short, however, when we look at other paintings by Vuillard, since Lucy is not the only female figure who disappears into the patterns of his paintings. In fact, he frequently camouflaged his female subjects so that they visually melted into their surroundings.
A prime example of this is Interior, Mother and Sister of the Artist. In this piece Vuillard’s mother, by all accounts a domineering presence in his life, sits squarely in her chair wearing a solid black gown. Vuillard's mother was a corset-maker who raised him alone after his father died when he was in his teens, so her powerful presence in the painting is logical given her significant role in his life. Meanwhile his sister leans awkwardly against the wall wearing a print dress that is frighteningly similar to the print of the wallpaper. While she doesn’t completely blend in with the background, she certainly doesn’t stand out against it the way his mother does. There’s a ghostliness about her presence in the room, as if she might be made out of the same material as the tablecloth or the walls.
Bizarre as it might sound to our modern ears, women during this time actually did try to match their clothing to their home décor at times. In Rose-Marie and Ranier Hagen’s analysis of Vuillard in the book Masterpieces in Detail the authors point out that there was a women’s journal in 1909 that recommended housewives use matching fabric for their curtains and their dresses. It is possible Vuillard painted women blending in with their domestic environments simply because it was something he had seen before.
Another possible reason for the relationship between patterns and figures in Vuillard’s work can be found in Vuillard’s interest in Japanese artwork. Nineteenth century Parisians loved collecting Japanese woodblock prints, and artists working in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century were familiar with the traditions of Japanese artwork. These woodblock prints emphasize pattern and flatness over three-dimensional illusion of space, so it is unsurprising that Parisian painters like Vuillard were also playing with pattern and flatness.
Still, we are left with some questions. Why obscure some figures but not others? Why hide only some of the women?
Here we are left to speculate, since there is no definitive answer to this question. It seems likely, however, that some combination of factors – Vuillard’s relationship to the women he painted, contemporary customs of home décor, and the influence of Japanese art – all play a role in explaining why some of the figures are hidden.
One of Vuillard’s largest paintings, titled simply Large Interior with Six Figures, illuminates all these factors well. Vuillard’s sister Marie is on the far right edge of this painting. She is bent over in such a way that her form loses some of its humanness, and she blends into the corner. Unfortunately, Marie’s life was also one in which she didn’t attract much attention. She was shy and unattractive, so much so that it seemed unlikely she would find a husband. Vuillard, in an attempt to help her out, arranged for her to be married to one of his artist friends, Ker-Xavier Roussel. Sadly, the marriage was an ill-fated one, and after just a few years Roussel left Marie for another woman. Marie was ready to forgive him and keep their marriage together, but it was over. Large Interior with Six Figures depicts the evening when the formidable Mme. Vuillard confronted Roussel's mistress. Wearing black once again, Vuillard's mother is on the far left holding court in the family living room.
Vuillard may have had aesthetic reasons for playing with pattern, flatness, and hiddenness in his paintings, but he must have also had more personal reasons. The women who disappear in his paintings are often among those who were somehow disempowered or compromised in real life. Their lack of authority in reality is mirrored by the way they fail to have a strong presence in the paintings. The stuffy, well-furnished, and carefully upholstered homes they lived in may have been soft and comfortable, but they were also limiting. The corseted women living in them likely wanted to choose more than just the pattern of their cloth curtains or a flower to pick from the garden, but not all of them had the power to do that.