Private Lives » The Troubled Interior

The Troubled Interior

Nabi interiors are celebrated for their intimate views of domestic comforts, but these artists used the same signifiers of cozy life—snug salons, lamplit activities, and animated wallpaper—to hint at the discontents simmering below the surface. Portraits are generalized to the point of anonymity, impassable flatness and pattern block the visual penetration of the rooms, and figures emerge from and disappear in the shadows. Artful distortions of scale keep the viewer off-balance, while ambiguity invites completion of the narrative. Are we witnessing a moment of domestic bliss, or the minutes before a tense eruption? The competing forces of familiar and strange lead the viewer into the realm of the uncanny. By evoking both the joy and the tensions of interior life, the Nabis invite us to explore, in the words of one critic, “the tragedy and mystery of daily life.” 


Édouard Vuillard 

French, 1868–1940 

Interior, Mother and Sister of the Artist, 1893

Oil on canvas
The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. Saidie A. May 141.1934 

Vuillard’s Interior, Mother and Sister of the Artist is considered among his most psychologically complex paintings. Depicting the two women closest to him in the home they all shared, it suggests not familial union, but discord. His sister, Marie, cowers at the left; the wallpaper threatens to overwhelm her fragile figure. Madame Vuillard, on the other hand, dominates the center of the composition in a confident pose. Although mother and daughter share a corner of the room, their physical and emotional relationship appears unsettled. On the right, a bottle of wine balances at the edge of the table, emphasizing the sense of life in precarious balance. 

[Artwork description: This painting is crowded with busy patterns and two women looking out towards the viewer. The young woman on the left wears a hunter green, yellow and white plaid dress and is leaning against the wall while bending forward at the waist as if to stay in the painting. The wall behind her is patterned of many colored splotches including white, crimson, yellow and dark green. Despite competing patterns the young woman almost blends into the wall, save for her pale face and hands. An older woman is seated on a chair in the middle of the space. She is wearing an all black dress and her pale face and hands offer contrast. The rug beneath them is a tan color and appears to have a subtle pattern to it. At the back of the room, in the corner, is a warm brown wooden dresser with drawers and on the far right of the scene, next to the seated woman is a round table covered with a brown, yellow, orange and cream patterned tablecloth. On top of the table sites a large wine bottle, an empty white plate and a crumpled white napkin.]


Édouard Vuillard 

French, 1868–1940 

Intimacy, ca. 1895

Lithograph
Portland Art Museum, Gift of James and Diane Burke in honor of Joan Conway Crancer 2016.90.3 

Vuillard hints at a narrative in this highly charged lithograph featuring three figures. The man at the left is nearly absorbed into the wall, while the margins of the image barely contain the seated woman’s cloudlike sleeves. Is this a tense confrontation between the three, or is it simply a cozy evening at home? 

[Artwork description: This lithograph holds three characters in a tightly cropped scene. The foreground contains the back, neck and head of a woman in a very flouncy dress with layers of feathers, tulle, lace, and other frilly materials that seem to fill the entire room. Entering from a doorway at the rear of the room , another woman is facing the seated woman. She wears a dress with a pattern that seems to extend onto the walls. Also, in the room is a formally dressed man with a beard standing erect just left of the doorway of the room.]


Pierre Bonnard 

French, 1867–1947 

The Card Game by Lamplight, from L’Épreuve, 1895 

Lithograph
Portland Art Museum, Museum Purchase: Amanda Snyder Art Purchase Fund 2017.21.1 

Bonnard infuses some of his characteristic humor in this scene, in which the lamp—the great signifier of intimate life—obscures one of the women, rendering this more a portrait of a lamp than of the cardplayers.

[Artwork description: Lithograph on cream paper of two women playing cards at a table with a lamp. Much of the lithograph has lightly sketched lines and the details are difficult to make out. The left side of the lithograph is fairly dark and the right fairly light. On the left, a woman with dark hair and a dark shirt leans her arms on the table and holds a set of cards in her left hand. On the right, a woman with curly, jaw length black hair and a white shirt leans on the table and reaches out her right hand with a card. Between the women is a lamp with a vase shaped base and a light colored shade. The background consists of black lines layered heavily on the left side. The lithograph has a thin gray line border.]


Intimacies 

Félix Vallotton’s biting humor and virtuoso command of the medium of woodcut are on full display in Intimacies. The ten sheets plus cancellation page compose variations on themes of deception, dominance, and manipulation. The seemingly mundane scenes contrast with the sinister titles, creating friction between the banal and the mysterious. 

The open-ended titles and ambiguous situations invite the viewer to complete the narrative of each tiny drama. Who is the liar in The Lie? Is The Fine Pin referencing a token of romantic love, or a gift wielded for manipulation? Comic elements can be found, but the overarching mood is one of biting skepticism of bourgeois marriage and adultery. The combination of pleasure and despair prompted one critic to call Intimacies “a delicious, disturbing spectacle.” 


Félix Vallotton 

Swiss, 1865–1925 

Money, 1898 

Woodcut
The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of the Print and Drawing Club 1948.3.5 

[Artwork description: A black and cream print of two figures engaged in a conversation. Most of this print is black with only the first quarter of the landscape print illustrated. A man stands at right with only his face, collar and hand discernable in the black field that comprises the rest of the work. He has black hair, beard and mustache and holds his hand palm up at wait high. The woman next to him at the left faces the viewer but looks away from the man out the window to the far left. She appears in a low-cut cream gown, her hair pulled back away from her face. She is partly obscured by the man’s figure as he stands close to her. He right arm is resting on a window grate; drapes and a cream brick wall are visible out the window. At bottom left at the black initials “FV” in a cream box and the word “L’Argent is at lower right also in a cream box. The artist’s signature appears below in pencil.]


Félix Vallotton 

Swiss, 1865–1925 

The Fine Pin, 1898 

Woodcut
The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of the Print and Drawing Club 1948.3.3 

[Artwork description: A landscape oriented black and cream print depicting a couple embracing just right of center between a large bed and a curtained window. The man stands at right, his arms around the woman. His figure is all black, with only his face and hands in cream. His black eyes are lowered and wears a large black mustache. He nuzzles his head close to the woman’s face. Most of her figure is in cream with her hair, facial features, and long dress details in black. Her eyes are also downcast, and her dress has a high neck and full sleeves. At far right we see the decorative footboard of the bed they stand beside. The covers and main body of the bed are black with just the suggestion of bed pillows in cream seen at upper right. Behind the couple stands an ornate chair in cream on a busy patterned carpet. At far left a black round table holds a book and paper in cream. A black silhouetted vase with flowers is set off by the cream light coming through a large window. Heavy black drapes frame the window and are held back with cream tie backs.]


Félix Vallotton 

Swiss, 1865–1925 

The Cogent Reason, 1898 

Woodcut
The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of the Print and Drawing Club 1948.3.4 

[Artwork description: A black on cream landscape print of a a couple embracing in a study. The man and woman are at center, using mostly black with their faces and hands in cream. The mustachioed man in profile, kisses the woman’s cheek. Her eyes are closed, and she wears a cream dove on her hat that has outstretched wings. The couple each have a hand extended to lean on a desk in front of the seated man. Their hands are depicted in cream on the desk strewn with cream papers. The man’s right hand is seen on the woman’s waist. Behind the couple at left is a bookshelf filled with cream books. At right, a chest of drawers with a cock and a small picture frame stands next to a black door outlined in cream. The floor contrasts the rest of the print in cream. At lower left is a cream box with the letters “FV” in black. At lower right, a cream box with the words “La Raison Probante” appear in black. The artists signature is in pencil below.]


Félix Vallotton 

Swiss, 1865–1925 

The Lie, 1897 

Woodcut
The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of the Print and Drawing Club 1948.3.1

[Artwork description: A horizontal painting depicting a couple in a tight embrace on an overstuffed red sofa in a vibrant striped room. The couple is seated at left on a deep red sofa. They are both white with light skin. The blonde man, dressed in a black suit with a sliver of white collar showing, enfolds the woman in his arms, his black clad leg overlapping her bright red dress. The woman, perched on his knee, nuzzles her face into his neck. Her brown hair is swept up away from her face, her red sleeveless dress drapes to the floor. The couple is surrounded by red cushions, each with a corner pointed upward. At right stands a round table covered in a bright red cloth. It holds a slender vase with dark blossoms surrounded by pale pink and tallow flowers. The entire background of the painting shows the orange and yellow striped wall which seems to undulate behind them.]


Félix Vallotton 

Swiss, 1865–1925 

Five O’Clock, 1898 

Woodcut
The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of the Print and Drawing Club 1948.3.7 

[Artwork description: This cream and black print depicts a woman crouching on a bed and holding a small cup to her lover’s mouth who sits beside her. The coupe is seen from the side, the man at center sitting on the edge of a bed in cream shirt and black trousers that are outlined in cream against the black bed. The woman kneels behind him with the strap of her slip falling from her shoulder. She has no facial features as her head is turned towards her lover. She holds a small cup of black liquid to his lips. They are surrounded by rumpled bedclothes and pillow against a black backdrop. A pair a black and cream slippers lay on the floor on top of the cream bearskin rug. The bear’s eyes consist of a simple black outlined circles.]


Félix Vallotton 

Swiss, 1865–1925 

The Other’s Health, 1898 

Woodcut
The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of the Print and Drawing Club 1948.3.9 

[Artwork description: This cream and black print depicts a woman crouching on a bed and holding a small cup to her lover’s mouth who sits beside her. The coupe is seen from the side, the man at center sitting on the edge of a bed in cream shirt and black trousers that are outlined in cream against the black bed. The woman kneels behind him with the strap of her slip falling from her shoulder. She has no facial features as her head is turned towards her lover. She holds a small cup of black liquid to his lips. They are surrounded by rumpled bedclothes and pillow against a black backdrop. A pair a black and cream slippers lay on the floor on top of the cream bearskin rug. The bear’s eyes consist of a simple black outlined circles.]


Félix Vallotton 

Swiss, 1865–1925 

Getting Ready for a Visit, 1898 

Woodcut
The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of the Print and Drawing Club 1948.3.8 

[Artwork description: A black and cream landscape print of two contrasting figures set at either end of the work. At left a woman is turned in profile spaying perfume on herself in front of a bright candle. Her face and hands are cream as well as the details of her black hat and dress. She stands at a cream skirted dressing table strewn with a brush, mirror, and other items. A discarded cream garment lays over a chair in the foreground. Across the black expanse of the background, a man sits on a cream striped black sofa at far right. Most of his figure is black. His face, collar and shirt front, watch chain and a bit of his hand are discernable in cream highlights. His head is slightly bowed, and he appears to grimace. His hand is shoved in his pocket. At lower left a cream box with the black words “Apprets De Visite” appears. At lower right are the black initials “FV” in a black box. The artist’s signature is in pencil at lower right.]


Félix Vallotton 

Swiss, 1865–1925 

Extreme Measure, 1898 

Woodcut
The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of the Print and Drawing Club 1948.3.6 

[Artwork description: A black on cream landscape print depicting a woman in a striped blouse weeping at right while a man at center approaches her, a cream cloth napkin in hand. The woman is shown from the side, much of her face covered by a cream cloth she holds to her face. Her black hair is delineated with a few cream, curved lines. She wears a cream belt, and the rest of her gown is black against the black background. She stands before a black cabinet lightly detailed in cream. The man is at center, turning toward the woman, his arms raised to chest height. His hands and face, collar and cuffs are in cream. He has a black mustache and facial features. A table set with plates, bread, water jug and wine on a cream tablecloth is to the left. Behind the table is a mantle with candelabra and a vase detailed in cream against black. A cream matted picture hangs on the wall positioned between the couple. At bottom left the black words “La Grand Moyen” appears in a cream rectangle and the black letters FV appear at lower right in a cream box. The artist’s signature is at bottom right in pencil.]


Félix Vallotton 

Swiss, 1865–1925 

The Triumph, 1898 

Woodcut
The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of the Print and Drawing Club 1948.3.2 

[Artwork description: This black and cream horizontal print depicts two figures, a woman sitting on a sofa at left and a man at a table at right. The woman’s cream head and hands are the only parts of her discernable from the black sofa that appears the be piled with cushions. Her head sits above the sofa back with her black dress melding with the black sofa. Her black hair is in a bun on top of her head, her cream hands are folded in her lap, and she appears to gaze toward the man. The man, dressed in black, sits at a black table, also blending with his surroundings. His head is bowed, and he holds his hands to his face with a cream cloth. At rear on the right stands a chest of drawers that contains vases of flowers and other items. The cream wall behind the couple portrays part of two picture frames. At bottom left, a cream box contains the words “Le Triumphe” in black and a cream box at lower right contains the black initials “FV”. The artist’s signature appears in pencil at lower right.]


Félix Vallotton 

Swiss, 1865–1925

The Irreparable, 1898 

Woodcut
The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of the Print and Drawing Club 1948.3.10

[Artwork description: A cream and black print depicting a man and woman seated side by side on a sofa with a large palm behind them. The couple wearing black seem to meld with the black sofa, only their cream hands are visible while their heads sit just above the undulating sofa back. The woman, at left, has her hair piled on her head in a bun, her eyes downcast and her hands folded in her lap. The man, at center, looks slightly away from the woman, his also downcast. He has dark hair with a deep part and his hands and shirt cuffs are by his sides. The sofa and the couple’s bodies are encompassed in black. To the far lower right, a plant pot decorated with a wide mouth carp holds palm fronds that spray outward behind the man and fill the right side of the print. A small area behind the woman’s head is solid cream color. A black box at lower left has the words “L’Irreparable” in black and the initials FV appear in a cream box at lower right. The artist’s signature appears in pencil at lower right.] 


Félix Vallotton 

Swiss, 1865–1925

Cancellation Sheet, fragments of ten woodblocks from Intimacies, 1898

Woodcut
The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of the Print and Drawing Club 1948.3.11 

Artists often destroy their plates at the conclusion of an edition to demonstrate that no further impressions can be printed. Typically, they strike a line through the composition, but Vallotton devised a unique solution: cutting out a sliver of each block and printing all ten on one sheet. The artist signed and numbered the cancellation sheet, just as he had done for the other woodcuts. He turns the destruction of the set into a work of art itself, a summary of the tense dramas enacted throughout Intimacies. 

[Artwork description: A horizontal black and cream print contains a detail of each of ten Intimacies prints. Five fragments are stacked in two columns side by side. Each detail contains either a face of a detail of an embrace depicted in the full prints.]


Félix Vallotton 

Swiss, 1865–1925 

Five O’Clock, 1898

Distemper on cardboard
Private collection 

Vallotton staged his interior scenes of intimacy and adultery as carefully as any dramatic set. Although this could be mistaken for a tender moment between husband and wife, the title alerts that this is an illicit liaison: cinq à sept (five to seven) was widely recognized as the time for extramarital affairs. 

[Artwork description: This horizontal painting portrays two lovers at center, sitting in a chair in an embrace. The woman is light skinned and wears in a peach sleeveless dress and sits on the bearded man’s lap. Her brown hair is pulled back in a low bun, her arms are around the man’s neck. The light skinned dark-haired man is partially obscured by the woman. He wears a dark suit and rests his hands on her waist. They sit in an upholstered red armchair with a fireplace and mantle at right. A brown, cluttered table with sturdy legs stands in front of the fireplace. Pictures or photographs decorate the mantle and wall behind the couple. A brown folding screen stands in a zigzag formation to the right of the couple. At the rear of the room is a window and a short squat vase of pink flowers]


Félix Vallotton 

Swiss, 1865–1925 

The Lie, 1898

Oil on artist’s board
The Baltimore Museum of Art, The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland, BMA 1950.298 

Vallotton’s interiors are awash in ambiguity and beg for interpretation. Novelist and art critic Julian Barnes offered a perceptive and entertaining analysis of this painting in which either figure could be the liar. Is the man whispering, “Of course I will marry you”? Or perhaps it is the woman who murmurs, “Of course the child is yours.” The ultimate narrative is open-ended in this hotly hued mini drama. 

[Artwork description: A horizontal painting depicting a couple in a tight embrace on an overstuffed red sofa in a vibrant striped room. The couple is seated at left on a deep red sofa. They are both white with light skin. The blonde man, dressed in a black suit with a sliver of white collar showing, enfolds the woman in his arms, his black clad leg overlapping her bright red dress. The woman, perched on his knee, nuzzles her face into his neck. Her brown hair is swept up away from her face, her red sleeveless dress drapes to the floor. The couple is surrounded by red cushions, each with a corner pointed upward. At right stands a round table covered in a bright red cloth. It holds a slender vase with dark blossoms surrounded by pale pink and tallow flowers. The entire background of the painting shows the orange and yellow striped wall which seems to undulate behind them.]


Édouard Vuillard 

French, 1868–1940 

Grandmother Michaud Seen against the Light, 1890 

Oil on canvas
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, Gift of the Marion L. Ring Estate, 1987 87.32 

Vuillard was especially fond of his maternal grandmother, Désirée Michaud, who lived with the artist and the Vuillard family from 1883 until her death in 1893. Here, the artist captures her in a moment of quiet reflection. Painted in 1890, it is among Vuillard’s first masterpieces, setting the theme for some of his finest work of the decade: introspective views that suggest the bonds of family but also hint at the transience of each moment. 

[Artwork description: The painting is dominated by a dark shadowy of a woman in profile against a bright, orange patterned backdrop. The older woman has her back to the viewer and it occupies almost the entire left side of the work. The woman’s face features a prominent nose and deep set eyes, the color of her skin is dark russet color. She wears a headdress or scarf atop her head and she is wearing a dark collared long sleeved garment . Both the clothing and scarf are dark and mottled with black, blue and highlighted with cream. The woman holds a sheet of paper with both hands with her gaze towards the paper. At right, further into the depth of the painting, is a red tabletop with a hunter green vase that holds wispy greenery. A small open box sits near the vase, its interior in shades of baby blue, pink and mustard. In the far upper right of the painting is a small swath of burgundy fabric with tassels. Busy, golden patterned wallpaper fills the majority of the space not occupied by the woman. Its pattern consists of alternating columns of vertical round circles and then small hash marks in deeper orange hues. Directly above the woman’s head and on the top left is what appears to be a dark, decorative shelf bracket.]


Maurice Denis 

French, 1870–1943 

Marthe and Marie, or Interior, 1895

Oil on canvas
Private collection, Portland, Oregon 

Denis’s wife, Marthe, and her sister, Éva Meurier, inspired some of his finest paintings. This image functions both as a portrait of the Meurier sisters and an evocation of Belgian playwright Maurice Maeterlinck’s Symbolist drama Interior. The play is a gloomy tale in which an old man and a stranger stand outside a home and hesitate to inform the inhabitants, who can be seen through the windows, of the news of a death. Here, the somber expressions of the women, however, imply they are already in mourning, perhaps referencing the death of the couple’s first child, Jean-Paul, in February 1895. 

By combining an aspect of his personal life with the Symbolist play, Denis achieved Maeterlinck’s aim to create artworks that, in the playwright’s words, take “ordinary motionless life for their subject and reveal it to us in all its gravity, all its clandestine poignancy.” 

[Artwork description: Two women fill most of the space in this painting. Their expressions are somber. One appears to be comforting the other. The woman to the right is sitting at a table. She is looking slightly to her left and down. Only the edge of a table shows in the bottom part of the painting. A book is sitting open on the table, and the woman’s left forearm is resting on the book. Her left hand is resting on the side of the table. She is wearing a black dress with long sleeves and a rounded neck which shows her neck and collarbone area. She has curved eyebrows with the eyebrow line extending down to form a straight nose. She has a small red mouth that is set in a straight line. Her eyes are a blue/green color and seem to stare out and slightly down with a vacant look. The woman to the left is standing slightly above and looking down at the seated woman. Her left arm is behind the woman and is resting on the back of her seat. The fingers of her right hand are barely touching the right shoulder of the seated woman. Her dress has long sleeves and is a very dark blue-green shade with a barely discernible pattern of circles in a slightly lighter shade of the same color. The neckline is chin high. A yellow oval is in the center of her dress. Her face is almost in profile with only a small amount of the left side of her face showing. She is looking down, so her eyes seem to be closed. She has smoothly arched eyebrows that curve to form a straight, slightly pointed nose. Both women have dark hair that is pulled back from their faces and covers the top part of the ear. The skin of both women is a pale cream color with a slight green tinge. The paleness of the face and hands is accentuated by the darkness of the rest of the painting. The top quarter of the painting places the scene in a railroad station. On the left, a small figure of a woman is seated in profile in a rectangle that is white outlined with green. On the right, above the head of the seated woman, are the head, shoulders, and left arm of a young man in profile. His hair is dark brown with a green tinge, and his skin is a slightly darker shade than that of the women. He is wearing a black shirt and his arm is reaching up as if holding on to something. A country scene shows between his profile and curved arm. The far-right side of the painting has a vertical stripe of green that ends just above the left shoulder of the seated woman. At first glance it seems that the women could be seated in their home. However, the background implies that they are probably on a train that is passing through or waiting in a station.]

Private Lives » The Troubled Interior