Edouard Vuillard, the youngest of three, was born in 1868 in Cuiseaux, a tiny French town near the Swiss border. His father, a former army officer, retired from his position as a tax collector and moved the family to Paris when Edouard was nine. His mother, who was from a family of textile designers, first operated a lingerie shop and then a dressmaking business from a succession of Paris apartments that the family occupied. Until her death in 1928, Edouard lived with his mother, his greatest supporter, surrounded by the women and fabrics that filled her workroom.
He enjoyed his first drawing lessons as a scholarship student at the Lycée Condorcet where he met his life long friends Paul Denis and Kerr-Xavier Roussel who would eventually become his brother-in-law. Quitting the Lycée in 1885 the year after his father’s death, he chose to study art rather than enter the military like his father and grandfather. Vuillard studied at the Académie Julian with Bouguereau and Fleury who recommended that he try the École des Beaux-Arts. In 1888, Vuillard studied briefly at the École des Beaux-Arts under Gérôme but disliked the conservative approach.
Vuillard then joined a group of his friends (Bonnard, Serusier, Denis, Ranson and Ibels and later Valloton and Roussel) who called themselves the Nabis. By 1890, he had also taken up an interest in the theatre, producing posters and sets for the new avant-garde works of symbolists like Ibsen and Maeterlinck. The Nabis had their first exhibition in the fall and Thadée Natason, the founder of La Revue Blanche, offered Vuillard his offices for his first solo exhibit in December.
Initially, he made small expressive paintings of interiors using flat bands of colour, then began adding detailed surface patterns to his work, creating enchanting paintings of women in domestic interiors. Vuillard’s touch was revolutionary in the 1890s though he stuck to daily life themes producing mostly small-size works. In 1893, he started to do fresco commissions to decorate a number of flats and, later, portraits of prosperous French families.
Successful showings with the Nabis and at the Salons des Indépendants brought interest from elsewhere and, by 1903, he participated in the Viennese Secession as well as that of Berlin. In December of that year, the French government bought their first piece of art by Vuillard. As his career flourished to enthusiastic acclaim, Vuillard moved his mother from their constrained quarters in the Carré St-Honoré to a vast apartment in Passy.
While Vuillard's art remained figurative, his intense focus on the picture surface itself — the flattened, sometimes unpainted, support patterned with figures that blended with their surroundings — would foreshadow elements of abstraction in the twentieth century. He moved progressively away from the Nabi movement, becoming more audacious in the use of colours to such an extent that he was considered a pioneer of Fauvism.
In spite of having become an accepted member of the haute bourgeoisie of the Republic, Vuillard refused to accept the Légion d’Honneur in October 1912 saying he “desired no further compensation of his efforts than the esteemed appreciation of people of good taste."
Vuillard died at the beginning of World War II, just as the quiet, domestic world he had painted for so many years was about to be shattered.