The Robert Vonnoh painting that once belonged to the author’s grandmother.

It was there, hanging on my wall and I loved it. I had, so many times, seen this painting on my grandmother’s wall, and had heard her say how she had loved working with and talking about art with the artist, Robert Vonnoh. It was a smallish painting of a bridge and a fisherman, faintly perceptible above the water – no fish in sight, and the fisherman, just barely so. The painting needed reframing, and I took it to a professional framer on 86th Street who had been recommended to me. Two weeks later, I went to claim it, and found that the new frame actually covered up part of the painting: the framer must have had something ready that would fit. It bothered me to think of losing part of that painting that I so loved …. But I was, eventually, to lose the whole thing through one of my instant enthusiasms.

Edouard Vuillard, “Young woman at a table in an interior with flowered tapestry” (c.1895)

For one day, I entered a Manhattan gallery to see the Vuillards on show. Irresistible, I would go to see any Vuillard at any moment.[1] Here they were all at exorbitant prices, all sold or apparently so, except one near the door, with no visible price. It was of a woman, turned slightly away — leaning over a table? A piano? (Was it Misia?) And toward the right, as if the entire painting were suggesting more than it could ever say, as if she were leaning toward something else not in view. Suggest, not spell it out, Mallarmé always said: “Peindre non la chose, mais l’effet qu’elle produit.” Just so, I felt that lean, not knowing toward what or whom it might have been directed. I felt myself leaning toward that lean … Of course, I completely share Julius Meier-Graffe’s view about the mysteriousness of Vuillard:  “there is always something in the background with [Vuillard]. It is possible to have one of his interiors in the house for a month, and one fine day to discover a figure in the corner, and not only a figure, but a whole story.”[2] I had not the entire story, of course, and only a half of the figuration, as I was subsequently to learn, but that half spoke to me far more than the whole would have.

As someone impassioned, over the years, by the great symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé – the poet of suggestion par excellence – I could scarcely refrain from an instant attachment to this painting, whose provenance I knew nothing of, and about which, in my excitement, I did not think to ask.

What I did notice was the statue by Frederick MacMonnies on display, of some Mercury-like figure pointing up and standing on one toe,  by someone remarkably reminiscent of the sculptor Bessie Potter Vonnoh, who had been a close friend of my painter grandmother, with her husband Robert. I inquired, not about Mallarmé or really about Vuillard, but about the sculpture right there.  Ah, I said, how this statue reminds me of my grandmother’s friend, Bessie Potter Vonnoh, and her statues like the one in the Conservatory garden, across from the Flower Hospital. And in reply, the gallery owner remarked how fond they all were of Robert Vonnoh’s paintings. The rest is obvious, I suppose.

A gallery owner came over to my apartment, at my invitation, to see my two Vonnoh paintings, and discussed with me a possible trade – for a (substantial) addition, I could have the Vuillard I loved, if they could acquire my Vonnoh painting of the fisherman and the bridge. At least I know the provenance of that painting, which I so miss now. Robert Vonnoh had loved my grandmother, and had given it to her….

So the Vuillard, which I could not find in the catalogue raisonnée available at that point, hangs on my wall. On its reverse, a text reads as follows:

Vuillard, Edouard
Young woman at a table in an interior with flowered tapestry
C 1895
Gouache and distemper on board
Red Stamp of the atelier E. Vuillard on the bottom left
H. 47  L. 25 cm

It turns out that the reason I could not find it in the works listed from 1895, is an interesting one. It is indeed listed, in Volume 2 of the Salamon and Cogeval catalogue of 2003, but on page 896, with the dates 1905-1907, as item VIII 141-1, called “the Light-Coloured Dress. ” “Oil on cardboard, 47 x 25 cm, Stamp 2, lower left, Art market, Paris” says the catalogue, the provenance is indeed the artist’s studio – and then  “Sale, Hòtel Druout, Paris 19 June 1995, lot 9 (ill.), Galerie Berès, Paris. And then was exhibited at the Galerie Berès in 1990, no. 115. [3]

By its side is the other half, VII-141.2, “The Dark-Coloured Dress,” also from the Artist’s Studio, but in a private collection, and atop the page is the original work: “Two Women Conversing,” whose description reads: “originally 47(?) x 45 cm, cut in two, Stamp 1, lower right,” followed by a description: “Side view of two seated women, each with a hat and overcoat, silhouetted against a patch of re-striped wallpaper. In the foreground is the back of a chair. A rudimentary sketch. (JS)”

The tell-tale page of the Edouard Vuillard catalogue raisonne (click to enlarge).

In short, I had traded a beloved object (and also purchased) one-half of a “rudimentary sketch” which had been cut in two at some point. It pictures two women chatting, having tea, one being, perhaps, Marcelle Aron, a visiting cousin of Lucy Hessel, Vuillard’s lifelong muse, as the knowledgeable Vuillard expert Mathias Chivot said to me. [4] The whole painting was in Vuillard’s studio at his death, and then inherited by the Roussel family (Ker-Xavier Roussel had married Vuillard’s sister), who sold it in 1985. The Galerie Berès in Paris acquired it, and Jean-Claude Bellier’s son Luc Bellier, who organized a Vuillard show in Paris in his gallery on the rue de l’Elysée, then had it transported to the gallery in Manhattan.

Odd painting: it felt odd from the beginning, when I thought it whole. It feels far odder now.  I had thought it already peculiar in its medium: while working for the theatre, Vuillard hit upon a technique of peinture à la colle, mixing pigment into heated glue, on unfinished cardboard. That is what I have: either a gluey painting on cardboard – good thing I didn’t have it varnished, because the varnish would have soaked into the board, darkening it in any unpainted spot – or then an oil on cardboard, wrongly described on the back, and wrongly dated. Something, or half of something, is wrong somewhere.

Back to Mallarmé, who wrote to Ambroise Vollard on September 15, 1898, about his hope that Vuillard could illustrate his extraordinary and ultimately creepy poem, Hérodiade: “I would be delighted if Vuillard would illustrate that poem, please talk to him about it and who knows if he wouldn’t cede to the temptation; for he can do anything.”[5] Vuillard neither illustrated Mallarmé’s poem, nor Marcel Proust’s great novel, and was, it seems, a cranky character. But Vuillard was never far from Mallarmé’s mind, as Mallarmé has never been far from my own.[6]

*   *   *

[1] Quoted by Roger Kimball, in The New Criterion, March 21, 2003.

[2]  Ibid.

[3] Edouard Vuillard: Catalogue Raisonne by Antoine Salomon and Guy Cogeval (Aug 16, 2003), Vol 2, p.896.

[4] My thanks to Lee Hallman for locating the work as it is dated in the catalogue, correctly pictured in its whole and its two halves, and to Julia Frey for her continual support.

[5] My thanks to the immensely learned Mathias Chivot, for transmitting to me this letter from the Vuillard archives, for furnishing the details of the provenance and the probable identification of the single figure, and to Cécile Ritzenthaler for putting me in touch with  him.  One-half painting leads to much.

[6] To witness:  Stéphane Mallarmé: Selected Poetry and Prose,  ed. and co-tr. Mary Ann Caws. New York: New Directions, 1982. Mallarmé in Prose, ed. and co-tr. Mary Ann Caws. New York: New Directions, 2001.

Mary Ann Caws teaches in the English, French, and Comparative Literature programs at the Graduate School, CUNY, and writes on art and text whenever she can. She also translates French poetry. She recently...

One reply on “Falling in Love with One-Half of a Painting”

  1. Is it just me or does the middle of this story read like a Burroughs cut up poem with all the ( ),,, and [1] [2] [3] ‘s ? I was getting into the story then was like, wait, this is a blog post, what the fuck is up with all the citations?

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