Madame Vuillard lisant le journal is a particularly lovely example of the many portraits that Vuillard painted of his mother, Marie Justine Alexandrine Michaud, whom he called his muse. Following the death of her husband in 1883, Mme Vuillard moved her corset-making shop to her home, where Vuillard lived with her until her death in 1928.

While her corset-making business took place in the home, their physical address changed over time as the years progressed. As mother and son relocated throughout Paris and the neighboring towns, the two transformed their rented apartments into dynamic spaces which functioned both as studios and living quarters, providing Vuillard with ready subject matter for his domestic scenes. Vuillard’s mother was an integral part of his creative practice, not only as a model for his paintings, but also as an artist’s assistant. Madame Vuillard routinely helped develop the film from her son’s beloved handheld Kodak. Much like his observational paintings, Vuillard’s photographs document candid moments in the life of the same stalwart woman, who is often seen with a slight smile as she reads, sews or sits at the table.

FIg. 1 Édouard Vuillard, Madame Vuillard and her daughter-in-law Marie in Vuillard's salon-studio, Rude de la Tour, photograph, 1907

Here, Vuillard depicts his mother at one with her surroundings, very much a part of the tapestry of the room. A rare large-scale interior scene, Madame Vuillard lisant le journal retains all the intimacy and warmth of Vuillard’s earlier small-format works. Compressing the spatial planes of the scene, Vuillard brings all elements of the work to the fore, in a sense identifying his mother with the space she inhabits. Known for the Intimist style of decorative painting pioneered with Bonnard, Vuillard frequently portrayed his friends and family in domestic settings, often placed amid myriad competing patterns. Abandoning perspective, Vuillard conveys depth through a clever placement of figures, employing the angular and abutting lines of the furniture in such a way as to denote their arrangement in the room.

(left) Fig. 2 Édouard Vuillard, Interior, Mother and Sister of the Artist, oil on canvas, 1893, The Museum of Modern Art, New York © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
(right) Fig. 3 Édouard Vuillard, Madame Vuillard Sewing, oil on card, 1920, National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The sincerity and complexity of Madame Vuillard lisant le journal distinguishes itself from other portraits by Vuillard. Instead of depicting his mother sewing or in another domestic role, Mme. Vuillard has been captured at rest, studying the newspaper while indulging in a cup of coffee or chocolate. Antoine Salomon and Guy Cogeval, in discussing the importance of the artist’s mother to his work and life, reproduce a highly evocative description written by Vuillard’s peer Pierre Veber: “He was the third child of an admirable mother, who made her living from a woman’s clothing business operating out of a dark mezzanine on rue du Marché-Saint-Honoré. We went there often to see our friend, and we felt for Madame Vuillard an almost filial affection. She was a figure of extraordinary purity and nobility. Her tenderness toward our friend was marvelous. She believed in his mission and devoted herself to it with exemplary confidence and self-denial. It is because of her that Édouard Vuillard became the perfect artist that he is, and also the man whose loyal intelligence and open, frank nature won our friendship. It was from her that this powerful artist inherited the extraordinary modesty he invariable displays, even in the face of unhoped for-success” (A. Salomon & G. Cogeval, op. cit., pp. 8-9). This highly personal portrait is a poignant tribute to the artist's consummate supporter and muse.

Vuillard on the beach at Mereville-Franceville, photograph, 1907