Snapshot at Van Gogh - Edouard Vuillard



3 minutes reading

A snapshot. Popularly defined as a photograph that is shot spontaneously and quickly without any specific intent. A phenomenon, which started in 1888 when George Eastman introduced the first handy Kodak camera. The camera was warmly welcomed by 7 artists, collectively known as the Nabis group, who believed that every work of art was a transposition, a caricature and the impassioned equivalent of a sensation experienced. This was reflected in the composition of their canvas; figures looming in the foreground radically foreshortened in the background and cropped unexpectedly with skilled light and dark manipulation. Something like the content of a photograph.

Edouard Vuillard
Integrating art and daily life; the main focus of the Nabis group to which Edouard Vuillard belonged. The French painter focussed on his immediate surroundings, often his mother, who served as his muse until her death. Instead of objectively documenting what he saw, he incorporated his personal perception. This contrasted with the style of the Impressionists, contemporaries of the Nabis group, with their objectively rendered painted compositions.

Without ever having touched a camera, Vuillard started experimenting with distorted perspectives and unexpected cropping. He would paint what he saw but made the objects in the foreground significantly bigger than those in the background, in an attempt to exaggerate the importance of perspective in a painting. This was furthered by the merging of human figures and their immediate surroundings; a woman in a floral printed dress thus existed as part of the living room wallpaper. This particular style created tension by blurring the boundaries between the human figure and the surrounding space.

Kodak Camera
Once Vuillard discovered the Kodak camera, in 1895, he used snapshots as studies for his paintings, allowing him to experiment further with perspective. Sometimes he would combine figures from different photographs and combine them on one canvas. Other times he would take snapshots of a place he intended to paint and refer to them whilst producing his paintings. He also frequently snapped pictures of compositions he had painted earlier; not literally but compositionally and temperamentally.

His photographs can be divided into three, corresponding to the three women who dominated Edouard Vuillard's life: Misia Natanson (Thadee’s wife) in 1890, Lucy Hessel in 1900 and his mother throughout his entire career. His intimate scenes of family and friends define a whole genre within post-impressionistic painting, and layered his photographs with pigment and meaning.

Evolving in Different Directions
Vuillard used photography as a means to express an intimacy and immediacy that he failed to capture in paint. In a way he created a cinematic connection between featured actors in a scene. There is a similarity to his paintings in that he was present through feeling rather than physical existence; he was always the pivotal but invisible actor around whom the drama revolved. An example of this is a series of photographs he took in Restaurant Normandy. He is seated with a group of friends (Roman Coslos, Tristan Bernard, Marcelle Aron, Lucy Hessel) of whom only one, Lucy, acknowledges his presence. Her gaze into the lens turns something observed into something participated. This style he also adopted when taking snapshots of his mother. She is placed on her bed, bald and toothless, in a somewhat blurry manner which reflects how the room would look without her presence. These images confirm how his photography and painting styles evolved in differing directions.

Vuillard's decision to adopt a new medium of expression, photography, helped give the viewer insight into the otherwise private world of an artist. The spontaneous nature of the snapshots was never reflected in his orchestrated painted compositions.

Also read our articles, concerning the Snapshot exhibition at the Van Gogh Museum, about George Hendrik Breitner and Henri Evenepoel.

Besides the exhibition a competition is open for you to send in your current snapshots

of Amsterdam, inspired by the renowned artists featured in the exhibition.