Even though it dates from just before he hit his stride, this 1889 self-portrait by Edouard Vuillard, in his current mini-survey at the Jewish Museum in New York, shows the great post-Impressionist achieving a lot.
Most of the time, when artists paint themselves, they show how they might appear to someone else looking at them. Their self-portraits very rarely depict what’s actually before them as they paint: Namely, a mirror with their selves reflected in it. Vuillard, however, following the Impressionist dictum to “just paint what light reveals to you”, takes pains to depict the mirror itself as a reflective surface. He doubles the decanter that he’s put in front of it and also captures the mirror’s softening flaws, so that the “real” decanter is crisper than the reflected one. If anything, he has probably exaggerated those flaws, just to make clear that they’re there.
Thinking in terms of photographic realism – or even working from a photo, as Vuillard is known to have done – he’s also taken the unnatural step of putting his companion, who is further from the mirror’s surface, into softer focus than he is. (That’s an effect you only get with glass lenses; human sight doesn’t produce it.)
The truth is, this picture isn’t really about “capturing what’s in front of you”. E.H. Gombrich showed that that’s an incoherent goal, anyway. But even if it weren’t, Vuillard has presented his picture as though it were the mirror itself that he is looking into – which it can’t have been, or he’d have been painting on its silvered glass and covering his reflection as he went.
Within a few years of this painting, Vuillard gave up on most of the goals of optical realism. Maybe doing this self-portrait laid the seed of his doubts. (Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)
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