The possessions we display on a mantelpiece, or maybe a window sill, shelf or fridge door, can reveal our tastes, interests and passions. Whether we ‘curate’ art, Star Wars figures, or photos of loved ones, we signal aspects of our personalities, life histories and values. What do your displays say about you? And what do you think Vuillard’s painting, ‘The Mantelpiece’, says about him?
Vuillard painted this picture in 1905, while staying with his friends, Lucy and Jos Hessel, at their rented holiday villa, ‘Château-Rouge’, on the Normandy coast at Amfreville.
The focus of the painting is a rather grand, yet simple, marble mantelpiece with Doric columns. Our viewpoint is in front and to the right of the mantelpiece, so that it appears to recede sharply and diagonally away from us.
On the mantel is a vase of sprawling wildflowers – oxeye daisies, a branch of blossom, and cow parsley – as well as a cluster of glass bottles. The white of the flowers is echoed by the brightly-illuminated shirts draped casually over a clothes horse.
Many of these items are hard to read. Only the details at the very middle of the painting (a large daisy and the front corner of the mantel) are in focus. It is in the process of straining to see that we become engrossed.
Vuillard wouldn't have had many of his own possessions to hand while on holiday, but he has still brought something of his interests and tastes to the room: flowers picked on a country walk, and quick sketches he has made to decorate the walls. See the prints propped beneath the mirror, which have slipped and curled over, and the greenish painting on paper which bulges where it has been casually stuck to the wall, as well as the print hanging directly above the clothes horse.
Perhaps he intended this painting for decoration too. Vuillard painted it on cardboard, a practice he started out of economic necessity, but which he retained on occasions for the warm brown-grey ground it provided. It was also light and convenient for oil sketches while on holiday. On the back of this finished work, is a quick unfinished sketch of the beach, on which grains of sand are still stuck in the paint.