Every time I visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York I spend at least thirty minutes with Album, by Vuillard. It continues to fascinate me.
The painting reads like a wave hitting the shore, cresting from the right and crashing left in a frenzy of flower and leaf patterned textures. One gentle swoop of an arm pulling a ribbon guides me up to the stooping woman in the background, back over the dotting heads, and drops my gaze into the rare free space of the painting, occupied only by the woman sprucing up the flowers in the foreground and the possible hidden figure behind her.
It took me three years to see the third middle figure looking at the album, and today I saw possibly an eighth figure, given away by a full red and white striped skirt peeking out behind the figure arranging flowers.
How Vuillard could do so much with so little color in this piece fascinates: its harmonies and values tantalize my eyes; its textures and subtle shifts of tonalities enchant. But the great mystery and mastery of this piece lies in the fact that its content and execution do not overwhelm the viewer, but in fact are quite humble and understated.
The museum placard refers to the piece as decorative, one of five commissioned panels for Thadée and Misia Natanson. I find it anything but decorative. Every time I lay eyes on the work I am swept into a room that I imagine is resonant with hushed tones, with soft murmurings over an album, the unraveling of ribbon, a gentle jostling of baby’s breath, and the solemn knee of the hidden eighth woman.
It was and still is rare for a man to occupy a “woman’s world” as fully as Vuillard did. As a male he was an interloper into this secretive and rich life, gaining access through his close relationship to his mother and sister. Through this work I can feel that he truly loved the nuances of this feminine realm and its flesh and blood occupants.
The visual residue of this painting occupied my mind last summer as I traveled north for a residency on a sailing ship in the Arctic Circle. Vuillard’s influence and my surroundings led to panoramic drawings and photos which led to paintings back in my Long Island City studio: one of my memories of the watery landscape, and another (pictured below) of intertwining figures, both of which occupy a space of strange and potent quietude—the kind of silence Vuillard understood so well.