The woman in Édouard Vuillard’s Woman Sweeping, painted between 1899 and 1900, is Marie Michaud Vuillard, the painter’s mother. She is tall and stocky, her posture—that slight give of the back to the broom, without bending—marking a nonchalant style of carrying out a chore that routine hasn’t made any less complex. As Madame Vuillard sweeps, her gaze seems to fall on the broom or the floor. We might detect deference or humility in such a pose, but the turn of her head, her face ringed with a whitish glow as if lit by an inner ardor, conveys ease. We cannot see her gaze; we are given only the black slash of her eyelashes, which suggests an almost closed-eye intensity. Madame Vuillard is invested in her work and in herself, though perhaps in this moment she does allow herself to be mildly flattered by her painter son’s attention. The slash also conveys a quiet authority; you know that she need not look up to be heeded.
The glow that illuminates Madame Vuillard’s face is also visible on the middle section of the broomstick, where her left hand holds it. There, the brushwork reveals something elemental: her power to enliven the inanimate through the intimacy of work. Her grasp has not turned the broom into a lightsaber; nothing supernatural has occurred. It is simply that through perpetual use the wood has come to appear less lifeless.
This change permeates the room. It is there in Madame Vuillard’s clothing, well chosen and cared for: the neatness of her rich damask housecoat of rust and black, the snowy ruffle of her blouse poking through the housecoat’s neck and sleeves. It is there in that hard-to-make-out black leather shoe that peeks from under her hem, and in her French braid with not a strand of silvery brown hair out of place. The room’s embellishments—the wallpaper, the framed paintings, even that little elegant brass doorknob on the richly grained brown door—suggest a space that has evolved with keen, artisanal patience over years.
Every crevice is bursting with her life. The interior does not simply belong to her, it is her. Everything therein sensuously affirms it. The wallpaper’s heavy reddish brown, ocher, and black seem to culminate in the swell of her striped housecoat. The bed, the chest of drawers, and the open door reflect the expansive gentleness of her presence. Camouflaged by her possessions, she can disappear into her task without relinquishing her personality, because her home, designed so completely in her own image, will always reassert it.
It is as though all the work done by her hands—the sweeping, the dusting, the polishing, the arranging and rearranging of decorations and heavy furniture, day in and day out—is a sort of kindling, a lovingness that these things absorb.