Vuillard’s Octagonal Self-Portrait (1890)

This 1890 Self-Portrait by Edouard Vuillard is well-known and was a highlight of an exhibition on Vuillard in Paris and at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Many of Vuillard's self-portraits survive but this one often grabs particular attention for its early date, odd shape and bold colors.

The French curators noted that: "Vuillard produced several daring compositions in which a few lines contained figures symbolically expressed in violent colours..." The Americans echoed the idea: "Vuillard painted bold works such as his Octagonal Self-Portrait in which the artist’s face is broken down into large, abstract expanses of pale pink, orange, brown, and cream. This work is an example of synthetism -- the idea that art should synthesize external appearances with the artist’s subjective feelings, through purely aesthetic considerations of line, form, and color."

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Vuillard, Octagonal Self-Portrait (1890) Oil on canvas. Private Collection.

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Purely through line, form and color? Be suspicious whenever you hear an -ism cited; it usually isn't. Indeed those noting synthetism here were completely unaware that a very obvious profile of a man screams inside the artist's head, his neck possibly throttled by an orange hand (diagram at left). The creation of art is a mental struggle, often violent as suggested in this cry of psychic pain. The hand as ever symbolizes art's craft; the eye, or head, its intellectual conception. Dürer engraved Orpheus in a similar way inside his own head. Michelangelo even went further, painting Christ inside Dante's head inside his own.

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Diagram of Vuillard's Octagonal Self-Portrait

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Many other artists including Leonardo, Rembrandt, Turner, Pissarro, Van Gogh, Picasso and Balthus have drawn landscapes inside a head as well. Yet not one of these illusions has ever been acknowledged by a specialst in these artists. That's good news. It means you can discover illusions in masterpieces that the experts never have. If you want to experience aesthetic satisfaction as the artist planned it, there's nothing greater than seeing through to the meaning of a painting at odds with conventional opinion. Just remember, as I do, that every painter paints himself and the concept will open your eyes.

More Works by Vuillard


Original Publication Date on EPPH: 04 Nov 2012. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.