The subject matter of this painting is little in doubt; a young woman seated at a table using a napkin on her fingers. A corked and labelled bottle close to a blue and white porcelain plate seems to suggest that a meal and drinks have just been consumed. But beware of first 'impressions! For the viewer, armed with the knowledge that Vuillard lived with his mother who ran a home dressmaking business, the plate is suddenly transformed into a hat, a hat with an ochre-tinted crown and a patterned rim. The purplish area behind the bottle can then be seen as a swatch of material or a bunch of feathers or even the opened lid of a sewing-box. And without having moved, our eyes can reinterpret this subject as a young woman busily engaged in the homely domestic chore of sewing.
Perhaps the wine bottle is not corked, but holds a candle to light the close work being done.
With eyes downcast the sitter is so completely absorbed in what she is doing that there is no possibility of communication between herself and the viewer. She has not been positively identified but is perhaps one of Madame Vuillard's workroom assistants.
The feeling of the painting is not static. The curving diagonal table edge imparts a feeling of movement and, in addition, the subject sits somewhat awkwardly to one side of her chair, tired, and ready to move, to stretch, to relax.
Vuillard has restricted his palette to slatey blues and greens, and several tones of buff colour. Some passages have been left unpainted, mutely adding to the unity of the work. Early in his career the artist shared with his fellow artists an obsession for Japanese prints, the influence of which can be seen here in the flatness of form, compression of space and the cut-off appearance of the wine bottle. Moreover, the subject's features, sketchily delineated with few directional brushstrokes, are decidedly Japanese in character. As Maurice Denis observed about Vuillard and his contemporaries 'the influence of the Japanese worked like yeast. . . '
From his earliest working days Vuillard painted on cardboard boxes appropriated from his mother's business. He used these bits of boxes untreated to achieve a nice matt effect, or with a thin ground of glue for a less absorbent outcome.
Another approach employed by the artist was to mix powdered pigment with the glue in order to establish a tinted ground to work on. Later, when economy of means became less critical, he graduated to using tinted paper as here, deployed in exactly the same ways as the box bits. 'Woman and Bottle' was created in gouache, that is, watercolour with the addition of white pigment to make the paint opaque.
The artist usually built up his pictures from brief pencil sketches, using his particularly reliable colour memory.
Sometimes he used a small Kodak camera, though there is no. evidence that it was used in 'Woman and Bottle'. Annette Vuillard remembers the camera: 'The inside was dark red and opened like an accordion. . . In it, the people upside down, turned into Lilliputians, moved in a blurred world:
Vuillard's mother had a part to play in the developing process since it was she who 'fixed' the image, using chemicals in household utensils. For Vuillard, the resulting snapshots served as a starting point rather than a replica of things to follow.
His paintings are never mere copies of photographs. Always, changes in emphasis and in the handling of light transform the photographic aide-memoire into a poignant work of art.
This picture is from a time when both he and Pierre Bonnard had cut themselves off from endless wranglings over differing art theories to concentrate on more private subject matter. Both Vuillard and Bonnard became known as 'Intimists' since they focused largely on the activities of people going about their own lives, apparently unobserved.
Vuillard painted nudes, miniatures, landscapes, decorative panels and poetic portraits of people. He became in the process a skilled practitioner of subtle muted tones, while creating in the spirit of Cezanne's precept, 'something solid of Impressionism'. His approach was so personal, so peculiar to himself that neither school nor follower continued in his wake.