This painting has occasionally been titled Misia à l'opéra — notably in the exhibitions held by Arthur Tooth & Sons, London, in the 1960s, presuming the identity of the woman to be Misia Natanson, wife of Thadée Natanson, who with his brothers Alexandre and Alfred established the literary review La Revue Blanche in Paris in 1891. Vuillard was a close friend of the Natansons, particularly of Misia, and contributed lithographs to La Revue Blanche. The composition of the painting has similarities with Henri Toulouse-Lautrec's (1864-1901) colour lithographic poster for La Revue Blanche in 1895, known to be a portrait of Misia, and even more so with Pierre Bonnard's (1867-1947) cover design for the journal in 1894, depicting a cloaked woman (whose identity is unknown), an urchin and a dog. The similarities, however, are of artistic style and fashion rather than physiognomic likeness; the same darting graphic technique, catching the figure as she scurries off-centre, and the rambling hat perched slightly askew on the elaborate coiffure of the 1890s.1
Thadée Natanson bought this painting directly from Vuillard. However, in the sale of Thadée's collection at the Hôtel Drouot on 13 June 1908, which was precipitated by his financial problems and by which time he was divorced from Misia, the painting is simply entitled A l'Opéra and described thus:
In an attitude of waiting, playing with her ruff collar, a woman is standing on the paved floor of one of the high landings of the Opéra. A balustraded and arched bay behind her frames her head and torso against the light. The atmosphere depends on the red tone of the cardboard which is retained. It shows through beneath the play of muted and vivid beige. The reds which the painter adds, and the blacks, serve to accentuate, with just the slightest touch of green.2
The description is incorrect in so far as it states the support to be cardboard. In fact it is wood panel. This is an understandable error, for Vuillard frequently used cardboard, taken from the bottoms of boxes used by his mother to pack the dresses which she made and sold. Moreover, as Jacques Salomon pointed out, 'He remained faithful to this type of support for a long time, both for the sake of its absorbent qualities and because of the ochre [author's emphasis] or grey tone which it provided as a base for his colour harmonies; later he used tinted paper for this latter purpose'.3 In the case of the Gallery's work the ochre ground is oil paint applied by the artist, though perhaps in imitation of the tone he liked on the tinted cardboard of his mother's dress boxes.
At the Natanson sale A l'Opéra was purchased by Romain Coolus, poet, playwright and lifelong friend of Vuillard. Then Vuillard re-acquired the painting from Coolus and it was still in his possession when he died in 1940. The history of the painting maps the intimate circle of friends in which Vuillard moved, and the protective, almost secretive way he treated these dusky little pictures. Even in the 1890s, Aurélien Lugné-Poe (1869-1940), who acted as a kind of impresario, had difficulty in persuading Vuillard to sell his works.4 Between 1912 and 1938 he did not once have a solo exhibition in Paris. Generally he sold paintings of his friends to those friends, and he hoarded his intimate interiors in a cupboard in the studio.
Michael Lloyd & Michael Desmond European and American Paintings and Sculptures 1870-1970 in the Australian National Gallery 1992 p.88.