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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

In 1940, a week after the Germans occupied France, a popular painter died of a heart attack outside of Paris in the embrace of his powerful patrons.

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg says an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York explores the artist and his circle of supporters.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: France is a predominantly Catholic country.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in Latin)

STAMBERG: At the right time of day in Paris, you can hear Mass in some local church. But The Jewish Museum show about Edouard Vuillard and his patrons has a different focus.

Was he Jewish?

NORMAN KLEEBLATT: No.

STEVEN BROWN: He was not.

STAMBERG: Did you have to be Jewish to love and collect him?

BROWN: No, but it is of interest, I think.

KLEEBLATT: Certainly his major patrons were Jewish families, important Jewish families who were tastemakers, cultural arbiters.

STAMBERG: Curators Norman Kleeblatt and Steven Brown. Whose exhibition helped me answer this question, from museum visitors Hasida Eeserman and Sahava Ortzman.

HASIDA EESERMAN: How come he was supported by a Jewish community.

STAMBERG: They loved his work. They loved him. He was very intellectual and very artistic in his manner and his interests, and so were they.

SAHAVA ORTZMAN: (unintelligible) they saw something good.

(LAUGHTER)

EESERMAN: They were the patrons of the arts at that time, yeah.

STAMBERG: Born in 1868, Edouard Vuillard, V-U-I-L-L-A-R-D, was part of a group of young post-Impressionist artists who called themselves Nabis, it means prophet in Hebrew.

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STAMBERG: Their Paris hangout was the Cafe Wepler, on Place de Clichy. Vuillard lived nearby and did paintings of a park he could see from his window.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Foreign language spoken)

STAMBERG: Place Vintimille looks, today, much as it did when Vuillard painted it. In Paris, Musee d'Orsay curator Sylvia Patrie says the whole neighborhood is frozen in time.

SYLVIA PATRIE: It's so well preserved that there are many, many film directors who like to set their films in the neighborhood, because you just have to change the cars and sometimes the signs and the way people are dressed.

STAMBERG: And voila, you are smack in the middle of the 19th century. In fact, the day we were there, they were shooting an historical film.

Vuillard's long painted panels of the park were commissioned by Henri Bernstein, a famous Jewish playwright of his day, who wanted decoration for his dining room. Vuillard did similar decorative panels for Thadee Natanson and his wife Misia, prominent Jews who were major figures in French cultural life - especially Misia.

In New York, curator Norman Kleeblatt says in that corseted time, Misia was a free spirit.

KLEEBLATT: Super smart, super cultivated, super charming.

STAMBERG: And super rich, as was a later Jewish Vuillard patron and muse, Lucy Hessel. Lucy was his friend, his inspiration, his lover, and the wife of his close friend Jos Hessel, noted art dealer - Viva la France. And viva an artist, working busily one New York afternoon in a Jewish museum gallery.

So you're doing some sketches of the things that you're looking at.

LILLIAN MILGRAM: Yes, I am.

STAMBERG: Lillian Milgram bends over her sketchbook.

MILGRAM: I find Vuillard extremely contemporary. Yeah, he's just - he blows me away with his flat areas, and then the way he breaks up the canvas. And he doesn't over define. He's just amazing.

STAMBERG: She likes Vuillard's subtle, pastelled colors: tans, soft siennas, blues and the flat way he puts in his colors. There's a Japanese influence, especially in his domestic interiors with wallpapers and upholstery that is dense with two-dimensional pattern next to pattern next to pattern. Vuillard's mother was a dressmaker. He lived with her until she died. By then he was 60.

Curator Norman Kleeblatt says scraps of fabric in the mother's sewing room are reflected in the son's early works.

KLEEBLATT: These were plush interiors, where every square inch of the room was covered in some kind of pattern and texture. And there is a density that almost explodes onto the surface of the painting.

STAMBERG: Those intimate Vuillard interiors are claustrophobic with pattern. There are people in his rooms, but you have to hunt for them.

KLEEBLATT: What is so radical about Vuillard is that his figures are the equal of any object. They are no more and no less.

STAMBERG: I don't do portraits, Edouard Vuillard once said. I paint people in their surroundings. As he moved through life from his mother's sewing room into the living-rooms, and sometimes bedrooms of his Jewish patrons, the surroundings became more and more luxurious. He's painting the look and texture of wealthy Jewish intellectual life at the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th.

He's painting social status, psychology. And he's painting a world that will soon disappear. We'll get to that in a minute. First, how come he's not that well-known?

KLEEBLATT: Vuillard was probably better known at middle of the century, where he was really one of those iconic artists that were part of the canon with Gauguin, Cezanne, Matisse. Picasso.

STAMBERG: But as time went by, from the 1890s into the 1900s, Vuillard was not that productive. Didn't sell in the galleries, for instance, because he didn't have to. Remember those rich patrons. So his name and work didn't get around as much.

Norman Kleeblatt says Vuillard became cloistered.

KLEEBLATT: He got stuck. He got overshadowed.

STAMBERG: And then, the kind of decorative work that was his specialty went out of favor. By the time Vuillard died in 1940, Abstractionism was on the rise.

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STAMBERG: Today though, in our jagged fragmented times, the cozy domestic worlds on Vuillard's canvases are a refuge from the jumble. His rooms are not noisy. They're safe - for a while, anyway.

Those wealthy Jewish patrons would die at the hands of the Germans. Their solid rooms would soon be empty. But they're on view on canvas until September 23rd at The Jewish Museum in New York. The show is called "Edouard Vuillard: A Painter and his Muses."

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

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WERTHEIMER: You can see some of Vuillard's artwork at NPR.org.

STAMBERG: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

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