Édouard Vuillard: Art and the Politics of Domesticity at the End of the Nineteenth Century

This project offer the first account of the feminine and feminist politics of ‘Intimisme.’ This was an innovative mode of art-making developed in the early 1890s by Édouard Vuillard (1868-1940) and, to a lesser extent, other vanguard artists associated with the Nabis group such as Maurice Denis and Pierre Bonnard.

Contemporary critics formulated the label ‘Intimisme’ as a means to encapsulate the intimacy of the paintings’ motifs and address to vision. Vuillard’s many Intimiste works are typically small paintings portraying, in sparkling pigments and economic brushstrokes, female figures in tightly composed domestic spaces. The figures portrayed are those of Vuillard’s mother, sister and grandmother, just as wives and lovers feature repeatedly in the interiors paintings and prints of other Nabis. This book interrogates the sexual politics of Nabi Intimisme, arguing that Vuillard attempted a profound engagement with the personal and social conditions of feminine domesticity. He did so in paintings and prints that address a complex range of female experiences such as initiation into sexual knowledge, childbirth, maternal authority, relationships between women, the family workshop and the habitualism of housework.

By mining multiple historical sources, I argue that embarking on an artistic project about domestic femininity in the 1890s meant entering the fraught field of contemporary politics. This was the decade of state legislation, anarchist negation, feminist demands and populist backlashes in respect of issues of work in the home, the status of the family and women’s marital rights. Overturning residual myths of social retreat attached to art at the end of the nineteenth century, this book argues that advanced art of this era found a role to play in socio-political debates of the period via the femininity closest to hand. As such, the project constitutes a crucial intervention in the much larger, yet unfinished, project of overcoming the structural repression of domesticity in histories of modernist artistic practice.

I have already published an article related to the theme of this project: 'Maman is my Muse: The Maternal as Motif and Metaphor in Édouard Vuillard’s Intimisme’, Oxford Art Journal, vol. 34, no. 1 (April 2011), pp. 55-77. An exhibition I am curating on this topic, ‘Maman: Vuillard and Madam Vuillard’ will open at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in October 2018, and will be accompanied by an exhibition catalogue. The project will also lead to a book, Édouard Vuillard: Art and the Politics of Domesticity at the End of the Nineteenth Century, due to be published in 2019.

Dr Francesca Berry