Jean-Édouard Vuillard, the son of a retired captain, spent his youth at Cuiseaux (Saône-et-Loire); in 1878 his family moved to Paris in modest circumstances. After his father's death in 1884, Vuillard received a scholarship to continue his education. In the Lycée Condorcet Vuillard met Ker Xavier Roussel (also a future painter and Vuillard's future brother in law), Maurice Denis, musician Pierre Hermant, writer Pierre Véber, and Aurélien Lugné-Poë.
In 1885, Vuillard left the Lycée Condorcet. On the advice of his closest friend, Roussel, he refused a military career and joined Roussel at the studio of painter Diogène Maillart. There, Roussel and Vuillard received the rudiments of artistic training. In 1887, after three unsuccessful attempts, Vuillard passed the entrance examination for the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Vuillard kept a private journal from 1888-1905 and later from 1907 to 1940.
 Les Nabis and after
By 1890, the year in which Vuillard met Pierre Bonnard and Paul Sérusier, he had joined the Nabis, a group of art students inspired by the synthetism of Gauguin. He contributed to their exhibitions at the Gallery of Le Barc de Boutteville, and later shared a studio with fellow Nabis Bonnard and Maurice Denis. In the early 1890s he worked for the Théâtre de l'Oeuvre of Lugné-Poë designing settings and programs.
In 1898 Vuillard visited Venice and Florence. The following year he made a trip to London. Later he went to Milan, Venice and Spain. Vuillard also traveled in Brittany and Normandy.
Vuillard first exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants of 1901 and at the Salon d'Automne in 1903. In the 1890s Vuillard met the brothers Alexandre and Thadée Natanson, the founders of the Revue Blanche. In 1892, on their advice, Vuillard painted his first decorations ("apartment frescoes") for the house of Mme Desmarais. Subsequently he fulfilled many other commissions of this kind: in 1894 for Alexandre Natanson, in 1898 for Claude Anet, in 1908 for Bernstein, and in 1913 for Bernheim and for the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. The last commissions he received date to 1937 (Palais de Chaillot in Paris, with Bonnard) and 1939 (Palais des Nations in Geneva, with Denis, Roussel and Chastel).