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Viewpoint | Vuillard's masterpiece, Woman in a Striped Dress, activates intimacy

Viewpoint |  Vuillard's masterpiece, Woman in a Striped Dress, activates intimacy


French painter Douard Vuillard wanted to describe our heavy, heavy, here-to-stay selves in softer, more ephemeral terms. He considered human identity as something fleeting, shrouded in secret and best perceived through the gaze.

A sequence of silent, origami-like decisions fueled the construction of this painting from 1895. It may be modest, but I consider it a small miracle: an efflorescence, a gentle explosion of intimacy on the walls of the National Gallery.

Woman in a Striped Dress is easier to read than many of Vuillard's other paintings, where the numbers still bleed onto the wallpaper and we never really know if this gently glowing lamp is really a face or this tablecloth a dress.

Here, as you can easily see, two women are arranging flowers in a room. The pieces, to state the obvious, are three-dimensional. So why does Vuillard make the picture so flat?

Let us remember that a painting, said the painter Maurice Denis, a contemporary of Vuillard, before being a war horse, a female nude or a kind of anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors assembled in a certain order. I like to think of Vuillard constantly hesitating, in a state of ecstatic hesitation between the two possibilities inherent in figurative art: creating a thing in itself or creating the illusion of something else.

Yet even in his dilemma, Vuillard made a series of decisions. One was to rely, very gently, on one or two fundamental tricks of illusionism. For example: the images of three human faces all feature rudimentary amounts of light and shadow to suggest the projection and withdrawal of the nose and eyes, and therefore three-dimensional volume. And as these faces get smaller and smaller and two of them overlap, our mind intuitively reads their orientation in space. There's even an oblong box in the lower left corner, drawn in perspective to suggest a recessed space.

But everything else clashes with the picture plane. And this flatness encourages our gaze to focus on the brush strokes, Vuillard's particular touch and the colors.

Apart from a few bursts of bright primary colors (red and turquoise in the flowers, yellow in the dress of the background figures), the composition is dominated by a rich red, a wise gray-green and a white. Vuillard decided to let the three hues function as figure in some places and as background in others. By alternating their responsibilities, a method reminiscent of the underside, warp and weft design of textiles, he created the compression of the images, its surface tension.

But then there's his touch. Even when Vuillard paints stripes (and aren't stripes always the best thing in any painting they appear in?), he avoids long, consistent, evenly spaced lines, as if he doesn't want anything too emphatic . Elsewhere in the composition, he places spots of saturated color next to gentle depressions of the brush that allow the paint to spread unevenly, making them porous and open to interactions with the marks all around them.

The result of all this is that the painting breathes. When you consider how violently it crushes the space, how claustrophobic it could have been, it's incredible. Just as air flows through a well-arranged bouquet of flowers, air flows in and around Vuillard's image, carrying aromas of grace, serenity, silence and inner life.




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