Manet's beautifully rendered pastel depicts one of the young Parisian women whose charms the artist found so irresistible. The model in the present work epitomises the chic style of the day, with her auburn hair tousle atop her head in a loose chignon. Although she has yet to be positively identified, the sitter for this picture bears a resemblance to the actress Ellen Andrée, who is also believed to be the model for another Manet pastel in the collection of the Louvre (fig. 2) and who famously sat for Degas' L'Absinthe. And as in some of Degas' most sensitive pastel portraits (fig. 3), the model's delicate beauty here is captured perfectly with the velvety softness of Manet's pastels. The present work in particular calls to mind the elegant pastel portraits of 18th century France, which were Manet's favourite examples of this medium. 'Pastel was for him a comparatively easy exercise, a diversion,' explained Théodore Duret, 'and gained him the company of the engaging women who came to pose for him' (quoted in Manet, 1832-1883 (exhibition catalogue), Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris & The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1983, p. 429). Duret noted that this straight-forward medium offered Manet a break from the labours of oil paint, especially as he grew weary during the final months of his life.
As Duret points out, Manet continued to seek out the company of beautiful women, even as his health failed him and despite the ever-abiding presence of his wife Suzanne. Joseph de Nittis provided the following description of Mme Manet's tolerance for her husband's indiscretions: 'One day, [Manet] was following some pretty girl, slender and coquettish. His wife suddenly came up to him, saying, with her merry laugh, 'This time, I caught you.' 'There,' he said, "That's funny! I thought it was you.' Now Mme Manet, a bit on the heavy side, a placid Dutchwoman, was no frail Parisienne. She told the story herself, with her smiling good humor' (quoted in ibid., p. 437).
The Rouart-Wildenstein catalogue raisonné on Manet records eighty-nine pastels, and more than seventy of these are images of women. Most of these renderings, including the present work, depict figures in bust or half-length portraits, a pose which best-captures the subtleties of the face. In all of these pictures, Manet is more concerned with his sitter's beauty than he is with her personality, choosing to emphasise a porcelain complexion or delicate bone-structure instead of exposing a manifestation of her character in her appearance. His sitters for these pictures were both professional models as well as women of society, including Mme Guillemet, Mme Michel Lévy, Valtesse de la Bigne, Imra Brunner and Méry Laurent, and by most accounts they were pleased with Manet's flattering portraits of them.
One of the first owners of this lovely pastel was Mrs Thomas A. Scott (née Anna Dike Riddle), the wife of the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad and one of the first American collectors of Impressionist art. Mrs Scott, like her contemporary Louisine Havemeyer, bought the picture on advice of the Impressionist artist Mary Cassatt. Jeune fille en déshabillé remained in Scott's family for over a century.
Fig. 1, A view of Manet's memorial exhibition at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts in 1884, where the present pastel hangs on the lower left among some of his greatest works.
Fig. 2, Edouard Manet, Portrait de jeune femme blonde aux yeuxs bleus, circa 1878, pastel on board, Musée du Louvre, Paris
Fig. 3, Edgar Degas, Mademoiselle Malo, circa 1877, pastel on paper, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham
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