France 1868 – 1940
Profile of a woman in a green hat
[Femme de profil au chapeau vert] c. 1891
oil on card
card 21.0 (h) x 16.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Accepted in lieu of tax 1989
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
This work exemplifies the caricature-based drawing style which Vuillard embraced in the 1890s. His drawings and paintings from this period use simple figurative forms. A few assiduously placed details such as the hat and firm brow animate this cartoon-like figure from the static background. Vuillard paints the figure on a plane of single colour, a striking technique which creates a bold effect, with the image jumping from the canvas. He uses a somewhat similar technique in The reader.
Vuillard creates bold structures in these paintings, with heavy dark lines and flat areas of colour resembling cloisonné enamels. He emphasises the contours of objects, in this instance the woman’s face, accentuating them against the background. In Profile of a woman in a green hat, it is interesting to observe that he creates his Cloisonnist lines negatively. Rather than painting the dark outlines in at the end, he applied a blue ground first, which he then covered up with blocks of colour, leaving only strips of the base colour around the face, hat and body.
Vuillard struggled with the extreme simplification demanded by Gauguin and his Synthetist aesthetic. His diary details how he made himself concentrate on the ‘emotion’ that the subject produced in him, forcing himself to ignore all nonessential details.1 In Profile of a woman in a green hat, he achieves this aim. As Signac noted:
…Vuillard as a painter has freed himself completely from that reality with which we others have to contend … The people in his pictures are not properly defined. As he’s an admirable draughtsman it must be that he just doesn’t want to give them mouths and hands and feet.2
Visiting the 1890 exhibition of Japanese art at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris inspired Vuillard to sketch Japanese-style women with similarly pinched faces, and assuming odd poses. In the present work, Vuillard creates an elusive face—just a clearly defined eyebrow and overly simplified eyeball, peering back over one shoulder. The face is an enigma. The conspicuous brow evokes a variety of responses in the viewer. Is the woman anxious, persecuted or suspicious? Is she shying away from our intrusive gaze, archly teasing us, questioning what we are looking at, or crossly glaring at us?
This work relies keenly on colour theory. Vuillard positions complementary colours against one another to create dramatic effect with minimal detail. Light and dark areas of yellow juxtapose sections of violet, while the green of the woman’s hat is matched against her reddish-brown hair. This style of painting by Vuillard, with its deliberate colours and simplified forms, prefigured the bold manner of the Fauves.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
- Belinda Thomson, Movements in modern art: Post-Impressionism, London: Tate Gallery Publishing 1998, p. 49.
- Quoted in John Russell, Vuillard, London: Thames and Hudson 1971, p. 95.