This painting is the left half of a decorative panel, commissioned in 1901 by the dramatist Jean Schopfer, who worked under the pseudonym of Claude Anet. The setting is the terrace and garden of a villa at Vasouy, along the coast from Honfleur in Normandy. Rented by Lucy and Jos Hessel, Vuillard also stayed there in the summer of 1901. The panel was installed in Schopfer's Paris apartment on the Avenue Victor Hugo later that year.
In about 1934 Schopfer's widow from his second marriage asked Vuillard to divide the panel into two, and throughout 1935 he reworked each half. The Gallery's other 'La Terrasse at Vasouy, The Lunch' was originally the right half. In the foreground can be seen the two Schopfer children and their nurse. The figure of Lucy Hessel behind them was inserted into the painting when it was reworked.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Sometimes the stories that surround the making of art-works can be as interesting as the scenes they depict. Take 'The Lunch' and 'The Garden at Vasouey', two paintings by the French artist Edouard Vuillard. They were commissioned by Jean Schopfer, a writer who published under the pen-name Claude Anet. Schopfer was a dandy, whose wide-ranging accomplishments included being the first tennis-player to win the French Open and the first man to drive a motorcar in Persia. In Vuillard’s paintings, he relaxes in a summer-home in Normandy with a group of Parisian friends... and as curator Anne Robbins explained there’s plenty of gossip to unearth, both inside and outside the frame. She began by pointing out a key figure in 'The Lunch'.
Anne Robbins: Yes, the one standing in the white dress was Jean Schopfer’s wife, Alice. She was American, born Alice Weatherbee, and we know that they had married in 1895 and that the wedding was described in the New York press of the time as one of the prettiest ceremonies that had ever happened. So this is Alice, whom he’s going to divorce in 1903.
Miranda Hinkley: So all of this very happy scene fell apart – they got divorced..
Anne Robbins: Yes, they gave a huge party to celebrate the installation of the decorative panels in their flat and as early as two years later, the couple fell apart and they divorced. Alice went to California with their daughter, who was the baby depicted in the panels there. And Jean Schopfer managed to salvage these panels from the divorce settlement and then at last they are re-installed in the new Paris apartment that he shared with his new wife in 1910.
Miranda Hinkley: Which must have been a bit strange, because there he is re-married, in a lovely new Paris apartment, and there’s his ex-wife, staring down, looking really pleased about the whole thing.
Anne Robbins: Yes, well, but you know apparently his new wife, Clarisse Langlois Schopfer, coped with this for twenty years, for no less than twenty years, because it’s not until 1935 that she will ask Vuillard to re-work on the composition. So I see your point... it’s not something I could have coped with personally.
Miranda Hinkley: And then what changes did she ask Vuillard to make?
Anne Robbins: Yes, we know that Vuillard was a regular visitor to the Schopfer marriage and so he would come and see his panels in the dining room and was growingly discounted about them. You know we read in his diary – he says ‘I went to lunch with Jean and Clarisse and I saw my gloomy old panels’ – so we know that by then he had got a bit fed up with them. And then Jean Schopfer finally dies in 1931 and it’s Clarisse, his widow, who asks Vuillard to re-work on the panel. We should say – it’s quite important that – they were originally one large single panel and Clarisse asked Vuillard to divide them into two and also to re-work some of the figures and the foliage. He has re-worked Alice’s face. She looked very happy and jolly in the initial painting and here he has given her this air of slight melancholy.
Miranda Hinkley: But there’s a lot of Jean Schopfer in this, but there’s also a lot of Vuillard, because his mistress is in these panels.
Anne Robbins: Yes, so Lucy Hessel was the wife of Jos Hessel, who was from 1900 onwards Vuillard’s main patron, friend and patron, and she was the host of this gathering in 1901. La Terrasse was the villa the Hessel couple rented in Normandy, but in the first version of the panel, Vuillard chooses not to depict the Hessels themselves, even though they were hosting the party, which is odd in itself.
But then when he comes back to, when returns to the composition and re-works it in 1935, by then, more than 30 years have elapsed and by then le tout Paris knows that he has developed this relationship with her and he’s not so circumspect about showing her in the painting and he does so very prominently actually, because you argue that she appears – from not appearing at all in the initial composition – she’s now there three times. So she’s here with her hand on her chin – you can just make out her in semi-profile. She’s also there in 'The Garden' as a lady in a floaty white, holding the flowers, and with a hat, this very graceful, elegant figure. And he’s also added a dog, who wasn’t in the initial composition and was actually Lucy’s dog, so it’s another way of alluding to her.
Miranda Hinkley: This is definitely a case of art imitating life and the paintings going through similar upheavals, and you know... reflecting the changing private lives of both the patron and the artist.
Anne Robbins: There’s a lot to be read in a painting like this. If you... I mean you need to know the background story and who these people were and what kind of changes the painting has gone through, but it’s a novel in itself... I think Vuillard is very open about it.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Anne Robbins, talking about 'The Lunch' and 'The Garden' by Vuillard.
From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Fifty, December 2010