Vuillard, Edouard: Interior, Mother and Sister of the Artist (1893)

A picture has a frame. I don't mean the piece of plain or decorative woodwork that's put around it, sometimes upstaging it with dazzling gilding, and often casting an inch-thick band of dark shadow right across its top. I mean simply the picture's edge or edges, where it comes to a stop, cuts off. These outer limits are usually straight, usually four in number and usually in a rectangle.

Normally, with a representational picture (occasionally with an abstraction) they are understood as visual limits. The picture's edges are the edges of a view: they make an aperture through which we look at a scene. The frame shows a section of the visible world - a world that is presumed to continue, off-picture, unseen, outside the frame. A figure in the picture can be imagined going out of view, simply by passing behind this limit. Or a figure may be shown half-cropped by the frame, partly in view, partly out. There's no question of a figure bumping into the frame.

But sometimes the edges take on a more palpable existence. Figure and frame can come into contact. For example, the sides of the picture may be equated with the sides of an open window, at which somebody appears, perhaps leaning upon the sill, or resting a hand upon the window's frame. Or maybe the picture's edges are identified with a more extensive barrier - imagine a scene where the bottom edge coincided with a floor that was seen exactly at floor-level. Mantegna does this sometimes. All the figures, near or far, are standing on or walking along the bottom of the image.

That's one way: the edges are made to align with some solid barrier in the depicted scene. But there are also pictures with no such realistic pretext, where (all the same) somebody relates to the frame as if to a physical boundary. Nothing in the scene accounts for this confinement, yet the figure seems to be bodily cramped by the sides of the image, as if inside a box. That sounds like a puzzle. How can the mere edges enter into the three-dimensional world that's pictured?

Well, you could give a more realistic explanation. You could say: the figure is not being somehow physically confined by the picture's edge' it is squeezing itself into a view. It's like in a wedding photo, when the photographer makes the people at the edge of the group come in a bit, so they'll all be in shot, and in the photo they appear to be squashed by the sides of the image itself. But either way, box or view, the cramping effect can occur quite naturally, without any sense of tricksiness.

Edouard Vuillard's paintings from the 1890s are dedicated to confinement, physical and psychological. They're set in rooms, in the home (where his mother ran a sewing business), among the family, among women mainly. For some artists of that time, like Munch, the room is a sheer nightmare scenario. Being stuck in a room, on your own or with others, is an image of hell. With Vuillard, it's different. He's both claustrophobic and claustrophiliac. His gorgeous images may be suffocating, but suffocation is the only air they can breathe. Sometimes it's bliss, sometimes not.

In Interior, Mother and Sister of the Artist, the confinement becomes menacing. It's an anti-mother picture, I'm afraid. The figure of the mother is in command here: central, seated, in widow's black, in a confident, masculine pose, legs apart, hands on knees, elbow and foot thrust out towards the left. And to her left stands, shrinks, her daughter.

In the 1890s, Vuillard strongly emphasises the surface arrangement of colours. Flat decoration overrides all. A camouflage effect often occurs, in which patterned dress, patterned furniture-fabric, and patterned wallpaper merge into one another.

It is a blotting-paper world, and it can create an idyllic fusion of people and environment, a feeling of total at-one-ness and at-home-ness.

But here the camouflage effect is used strategically, dramatically. It is only the young woman who is spectacularly overridden by pattern. In contrast to her darkly shaped, sharply distinct mother, she in her checked frock half-disappears, absorbed into the spotted wallpaper behind her. She is an almost invisible presence, a nobody.

A nobody - but still confined. The young woman, backing away from the forceful maternal presence, is stopped, backed up against the wall. She looks not just camouflaged but flattened, as in a centrifuge. There's no escaping the powerful figure, no way out of the room, but no room within it either. The colour harmonies are warm and cosseting, but this is a grim image of retreat and entrapment, submission and dependency.

The frame only aggravates her situation. It hems the young woman in. Backed against the wall, she's also pressed against the left-hand side of the painting. And most strikingly, for no apparent motive, this tall, thin girl bends down so that her head lies beneath and within the top edge, as if stooping under a very low ceiling or a yoke.

She is subjugated, humbly and meekly fitting herself into this picture-space - this view or box - that her mother's figure dominates. She is stuck between mother and frame. She is elbowed out of the way (her bending body echoes the sharp bend in her mother's arm). She is literally pushed into the corner.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week