Towering over two metres in height, Edouard Vuillard’s Les Pavillons, Cricqueboeuf. Devant la maison plunges the viewer into an Arcadian idyll from an age long vanished. Painted in 1911, this picture was created as part of a decorative scheme for Vuillard’s art dealers, the brothers Josse and Gaston Bernheim, and was designed to hang in their country home, Bois-Lurette, at Villers-sur-Mer. Vuillard responded to the commission with huge enthusiasm. Of the thirteen panels that would eventually form the final scheme, Les Pavillons, Cricqueboeuf. Devant la maison was painted as part of the first phase, which was apparently such a success that the brothers commissioned more works over the subsequent two summers. Vuillard had been involved in the creation of site-specific paintings for a number of years by the time he created Les Pavillons, Cricqueboeuf. Devant la maison. After all, it reflected the ethos of the Nabis, with their emphasis on using art for decoration, shaping their environments. Over the years, Vuillard painted pictures for the homes of several notable collectors, including Alexandre Natanson, Prince Emmanuel Bibesco, Princess Bassiano and Thadée and Misia Natanson, as well as civic buildings such as the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées.
Vuillard was originally asked to create the panels to surround a doorway during a lunch at the Bernheims’ house, when he was visiting them from nearby Cricqueboeuf, where he was staying with Lucy Hessel. Within a month, the artist was able to record in his diary: ‘at Villers[,] Bois-Lurette[,] install my decoration[,] touch it up[,] rather good impression’ (Vuillard, quoted in A. Salomon & G. Cogeval, Vuillard: The Inexhaustible Glance, Critical Catalogue of Paintings and Pastels, vol. II, Paris, 2003, p. 1104). The mutual approval of this painting is indicated by the fact that it was included in the Exposition Vuillard held at the brothers’ Galerie Bernheim-Jeune the following year. In addition, it remained in situ until the family sold the property, at which point Vuillard was able to retouch some elements, a common practice when his installations were removed.
Though Les Pavillons, Cricqueboeuf. Devant la maison was painted years after the age of the Nabis had ended, the commission retained some of the premises of the artist’s earlier style, avoiding mathematical perspective and instead presenting a view that dominates the entirety of the surface as it recedes into the distance. There is an echo of the deliberate avoidance of pictorial depth that had been inspired by the art of Paul Gauguin, while the composition also recalls the mediaeval tapestries so beloved by the Nabis. This reveals the extent to which even a summery vision like this, designed for the Bernheims’ holiday home, retained strong roots in Vuillard’s earlier pictures.
Yet the palette has been liberated by light, instilling the picture with an unmuddied sense of joy. In Les Pavillons, Cricqueboeuf. Devant la maison, there is a strong sense of the sun-drenched douceur de vivre that Gloria Groom identified in this series, harnessed both in the brightness of the palette and in the image of elegant, sedentary rest and recreation that fills the painting (G.L. Groom, Edouard Vuillard Painter-Decorator, Patrons and Projects, New Haven & London, 1993, p. 245). In the background, figures are shown in various outfits, many of them clearly pyjamas, while in the foreground Lucy Hessel is shown sporting a bold hat, itself emblazoned with a vivid purple bow, next to a young girl—usually considered to be Denise Natanson—with their dog, Loc.
This cast of characters is noteworthy, as it reflects the continuing intimacy that underpinned so much of Vuillard’s work. Rather than showing Josse and Gaston themselves, or their wives, Vuillard focused on his own surroundings. In this case, this was the villa ‘Les Pavillons’ at Cricqueboeuf, in the Calvados region of Normandy, which had been rented by the Hessels that summer and the previous one. This, after all, was a part of the summer villégiature, the annual escape from the confines of Paris during the months of excessive heat. During the late nineteenth century, Vuillard’s experiences of the villégiature had been somewhat different, as he had usually holidayed in the company of Misia Natanson and the various figures involved with La Revue Blanche. This usually took place in close proximity to Paris, allowing more of an opportunity to dart in and out of the French capital. But in the company of Lucy Hessel, the wife of one of the partners at the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Vuillard tended to venture farther afield, usually to the Normandy coast, especially in the years leading up the the outbreak of the First World War The Normandy coast was an area with serious artistic credentials, having been immortalised in so many of Claude Monet’s paintings. Yet Vuillard’s own images provide a marked contrast to the dramatic landscapes of the arch-Impressionist. Instead, while channelling a sense of immediacy, he has created a highly personalised vision of elegant vacationing, based entirely on his own elegant surroundings as a guest of the Hessels. Annette Vaillant, the daughter of Alfred and Marthe Natanson, recollected Vuillard’s restless creativity being spurred by his surroundings during one of these vacations: ‘Even at breakfast time Monsieur Vuillard’s piercing gaze would roam from the large table laid out in the garden to his little sketchbook. Often he would say, “Don’t move.”’ (Annette Vaillant, quoted in K. Jones, ‘Vuillard and the “Villégiature”’, in, G. Cogeval, ed., Edouard Vuillard, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2003, p. 448).
The other paintings that Vuillard created for the Bernheims’ villa largely featured a similar cast of characters—people who were clearly familiar with the dealers, yet were not their own immediate social circle. By this time, Vuillard had been involved for a long time with Lucy Hessel, whose husband Jos was one of his dealers. Jos appears to have turned a blind eye to what would become the decades-long relationship between the artist and his wife, indulging their closeness—while continuing to benefit from the sales of his works, which often featured his own wife as muse. It is a mark of her centrality in Vuillard’s life that she featured so prominently in the decorations at the Bois-Lurette. So too did Denise Natanson, who was the subject of both the vertical panels surrounding the first doorway, the present work and also another showing ‘Les Pavillons’ (Salomon & Cogeval, no. IX-159.1). Vuillard completed the effect by adding mosaic-themed elements as well as a faux-mediaeval run of figures. These were even wittily punctuated by elements of brickwork which Vuillard had rendered, adding a sense of architectural timelessness to his works. Over the coming two summers, Vuillard would create paintings to surround a further two doors for the Bernheims. One of the dominant panels, perhaps as a final concession to the dealers who had commissioned the work, featured the wives of each of the Bernheim brothers (Salomon & Cogeval, no. IX-159.11).
Les Pavillons, Cricqueboeuf. Devant la maison was exhibited in the Exposition Vuillard which took place in April 1912 at the Galerie Bernheim- Jeune— indicating his clients’ approval of the commission. This exhibition was met with highly favourable reviews. Louis Vauxcelles in particular would compare it warmly against the Salon, of which he was scathing, referring to the sheer joy that it instilled in him. ‘All the gifts are united here,’ he wrote in Gil Blas. ‘The subtlety of the finest eye upon which the school – the true school – of contemporary painting can count; the sensual and languid grace, the merits of a comprehensive psychologist... I tell you that this Exposition Vuillard is exhilarating’ (Vauxcelles, ‘Exposition Vuillard’, Gil Blas, 16 April 1912, p. 4).