This painting of a woman choosing a book from a shelf is a far cry from Félix Vallotton’s Nabi interiors featuring the everyday triumphs and tragedies of bourgeois households. It is also very different from the views of rows of rooms opening onto one another in his own apartment in the early years of the century, such as the Femme en bleu fouillant dans une armoire (Woman in blue rifling through a wardrobe, 1903, Paris, Musée d’Orsay), in which the model was also shown from behind, but full-length and from a greater distance.
Here, the tighter framing defines a small space with a strict geometrical grid of perpendicular vertical lines. The painter foregrounds the lines of the bookcase. The vertical bands of the door posts and the folds of the curtain protecting the books from the light further heighten the sense of verticality. Within this tight-knit frame, Vallotton sets the warm hues of the bookcase itself and the woman’s skirt and brown hair against the chillier tones of her blue blouse. The choice of books plays into the palette: the shelves are filled with the yellow spines of the Bibliothèque Charpentier collection, in an ironic nod to the supposed female preference for thrilling novels.
Though Vallotton considered this an important work, it was rejected by the Carnegie Institute International Exhibition, held in Pittsburgh in 1920. It had been shown by Vallotton’s Paris art dealer Eugène Druet the previous year, when nothing about it was deemed shocking, “neither the execution nor the subject, of the utmost decency”, as Vallotton wrote in the Bulletin de la vie artistique. He was accepted for all the Institute’s exhibitions after 1922, when this work was acquired by the Mulhouse-based industrialist Gaston Frey.
Marina Ducrey, in collaboration with Katia Poletti, Félix Vallotton, 1865-1925 : l’œuvre peint, 3 vol., Lausanne, Fondation Félix Vallotton, Zurich, Institut suisse pour l’étude de l’art, Milan, 5 Continents Editions, 2005, n° 1090.
Sasha M. Newman (ed.), Félix Vallotton, exh. cat. Lausanne, Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Paris, Flammarion, 1992.