Last updated: May 12, 2012 1:34 am

Interior decor

Vuillard channelled domestic friction into a series of ravishingly claustrophobic canvases

“What I like in Vuillard,” the American painter and art critic Fairfield Porter once said, “is that what he’s doing seems to be ordinary, but the extraordinary is everywhere.”

Edouard Vuillard’s paintings pack extremes of anguish and joy into humble interiors, and his finest works interpret strained family relationships through the prism of decoration, and with intoxicating dissonances of shape and colour. In each prosaic room, the eye is beguiled by a splash of blue or a thick patch of green, the dense ornamentation of an oriental rug, arabesques leaping from the walls.

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He lived with his mother, his sister Marie and her philandering husband, the painter Ker-Xavier Roussel, who was also Vuillard’s best friend. It wasn’t a comfortable arrangement but the artist channelled domestic friction into a series of ravishingly claustrophobic canvases. “The Table” – regrettably not in this compact show at the Jewish Museum in New York, although it is reproduced in the catalogue – renders a moment when Roussel’s love affairs threatened to undermine the entire household. An ominous riot of paisleys and polka dots overwhelms the family dinner; each member is locked in the depressing drama. Vuillard’s tapestry-like style transforms the walls themselves into actors, burying psyches in surfeits of design.

However, this show is a muffled take on the virtuoso of loud patterns: curator Stephen Brown has diluted the punch of a few masterpieces with too many mediocrities. Born in 1868, Vuillard flared young and, though he lived until 1940, his inspiration expired prematurely. Here his early career is poorly represented, while his society portraits of the 1920s and 1930s take up more space than they earn. Brown tries to redeem the artist’s later years but it’s a difficult job.

The show’s subtitle, “A Painter and His Muses”, calls attention to Vuillard’s entanglements with women. After his father’s early death, the artist continued living with his mother for the rest of her life. A corset-maker with a small dress shop, she turns up over and over again in paint. Sometimes her wizened features dominate the canvas; her spirit suffuses the perpetual disorder. “My mother is my muse,” he proclaimed. He was 60 when she died.

Vuillard’s romantic desires alighted on the flirtatious Misia Natanson, who was married to another friend, Thadée Natanson. This relationship was an exercise in frustration and misery. Misia, who encouraged Vuillard’s love but didn’t requite it, divided her affections among a retinue of men that included the painter Félix Vallotton. “I am actually doing a lot of painting in spite of moments of despair, misgivings and annoyance,” Vuillard confessed in a letter written from the Natanson’s country home in Burgundy. There in the summer of 1899, he narrated his longings in pictures of tenderness, frustration and passion. “Misia and Vallotton at Villeneuve” intimates the tension that must have permeated every moment. Misia, resplendent in a voluminous robe and yellow scarf, turns her back on Vallotton, who gazes off to the left. Thadée’s face is cut off – only his red nose and rotund belly extend into the frame. The rest is a glorious tumult of gold, pink, ochre and blue, with a splotch of aqua separating the two men. The painter, who is both observer and participant, flits between sybaritic surfaces and the dark emotions they obscure.

Edouard Vuillard's ‘Misia and Vallotton at Villeneuve’©Bridgeman Art Library

‘Misia and Vallotton at Villeneuve’ (1899)

Vuillard later turned to Lucy Hessel, the wealthy wife of another patron. But happiness came at a creative cost; the portraits of Lucy lack the psychic tumult that animated the earlier work. “Madame Hessel at the Seashore” radiates a contented rosy glow, with the pink-gowned Lucy beneath an open window facing the sea. There is the hint of a disturbance: a rickety wood fence, perhaps a coded reference to her married state, obscures the view. But the painter’s energy seems sapped by contentment. The radical clash of surfaces has resolved into standard-issue illusionism.

The first world war accelerated Vuillard’s turn toward traditionalism. Celebrities and industrialists sought him out for commissions, and the result was a torrent of reactionary kitsch, which wall labels here amp up by invoking Degas, El Greco and Velázquez, describing one painting as a “masterpiece of setting and characterisation”. They protest too much. In a cluttered portrait of David David-Weill, the financier is eclipsed by his Chardins in their gilded frames and his ancien régime furniture, a small addendum to everything he owns.

At his best – the part on which this exhibition stints – Vuillard intuited the complex relationships between people and the environments they create. As he got older, though, it seemed as if people interested him less and less, and what was left were just dioramas of taste, opulent rooms haunted by prosperous ghosts.

‘Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and His Muses, 1890-1940’, to September 23, www.thejewishmuseum.org

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