WORKS FROM AN IMPORTANT PRIVATE COLLECTION, SOLD IN PART TO BENEFIT TWO NOT-FOR-PROFIT INSTITUTIONS IN THE FIELDS OF SCIENCE AND MUSIC
Manet’s mother hosted a weekly Thursday soirée which attracted attendees such as Edgar Degas, Émile Zola, Charles Baudelaire and Alfred Stevens and his wife Marie. Marie Stevens in turn hosted her own evening gathering on Wednesdays which brought artists from Puvis de Chavannes to Fantin-Latour to Berthe Morisot and Eva Gonzalès. As these social sets both expanded and grew more closely knit, personal and artistic bonds developed. Manet’s younger brother Eugène would marry Berthe Morisot in 1874, while Eva Gonzalès would become Manet’s first and only pupil in 1869. These artists, writers, poets and critics would model for each other, critique each other and spend their leisure time together. One of these sun-filled days found a group playing croquet in the garden outside Stevens' house. Manet, evidently taken by the setting and subject, composed one of his most Impressionistic images of two couples batting the ball through the wickets of a makeshift croquet pitch (see fig. 2). The figure of Stevens himself can be seen at lower left while the central standing female figure towards the right-hand side is Alice Legouvé, a model and likely mistress of Stevens.
By 1871, Manet was short on funds; he had borrowed heavily from his mother and could not keep up with his mounting bills. In a moment of desperate brilliance he asked Alfred Stevens if he could leave a few of his own works in Stevens' (already a highly successful artist) studio. Women in interiors, sumptuously dressed and sometimes exoticized with bits of Japonisme filled his canvases and, after catching the eyes of Stevens' dealers and patrons, left him with a comfortable income of around 100,000 francs a year—an unthinkable sum for Manet or indeed any of the artists in the Impressionist movement. “The new year  had barely begun,” relates Beth Archer Brombert, “when Paul Durand-Ruel went shopping and looked in on Stevens. There he saw the two Manet canvases: ‘They were the superb Port of Boulogne in Moonlight, and the equally marvelous still life [The Salmon] …. He… paid Manet six hundred francs for The Salmon and one thousand for the other. ‘Amazed by my purchases,’ he continues, ‘for one fully appreciates a work of art only when one possesses it, I went the very next day to Manet’s studio…. I found there a remarkable group of pictures…. On the spot, I bought everything he had, that is, twenty-three paintings, for 35,000 francs, at the prices he was asking.’ A few days later, he bought a second lot for sixteen thousand francs. For Manet this was an undreamed-of windfall: 51,600 francs to be paid in installments of a few thousand at a time. His mood brightened considerably” (B. Archer Brombert, Édouard Manet, Rebel in a Frock Coat, New York, 1996, pp. 305-06).
With this new financial windfall, a summer sojourn out of Paris, and a new studio to move into in the fall, 1892 proved to be a hugely successful year for the artist. La Femme à l’ombrelle, probably painted during the second half of 1872 after Manet moved his studio to a spacious old fencing school at 4, rue de Saint-Pétersburg, occupies a crucial position in the artist’s oeuvre. The model for this work is almost certainly the aforementioned Alice Legouvé who would appear again over the course of the coming years in La Partie de croquet à Paris, now at the Stadel Museum, Le Linge at The Barnes Foundation and Portrait d’Alice Legouvé at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles (see figs. 2, 3 & 4). In each this attractive young woman is depicted with her hair piled atop her head, her hats shifting with the context of the scene. The blush of her cheeks, peaked eyebrows and round eyes remain consistent in the varied depictions; while she adapts to each scenario, her physical presence remains constant throughout.
During Manet’s final years, he increasingly gave himself over to solely painting female sitters in his studio. “A gadabout, a wit and a charmer,” writes Leah Lehmbeck, “Manet spent the last five years of his life as gregariously as ever. A parade of parisiennes from the monde and the demi-monde walked through his doors, and stood, or sat, for him to capture their smiles, their gazes and their sumptuous costumes. These women, among them his wife, provide a glittering record of his Paris. His late portraits of women also reveal the crucial importance of portraiture to Manet’s artistic program, through his clever engagement with the traditional expectations of the genre: the standardized poses, the idealized identities and the stages compositions. It is in portraiture that Manet’s interest in depicting the real world coincides with his deliberately self-conscious approach to picture-making, ultimately revealing the dual nature of his Realism” (Manet, Portraying Life (exhibition catalogue), Royal Academy of Arts, London & Toledo Museum of Arts, Toledo, 2012-13, p. 50).
Despite the general acceptance of Manet as the father of Modern Art, his work was remarkably different to that of his contemporary Impressionists, with whom the terms "modernity" and "avant-garde" became increasingly associated. Throughout his work, Manet retained an independent vision and pursued his own ideas about light, color, compositional structure and pictorial space. Manet’s clumping of dark and light forms into distinct areas, his rejection of plein-air painting and his persistent dependence on precisely placed lines, clearly distinguish his style from that of the Impressionists. The Impressionists, as Charles Moffett has noted, “were landscapists who concentrated on plein-air subjects as purportedly realized through an objective transcription of the actual experience of color and light. In contrast, Manet was primarily a figure painter who was fascinated by subjects from modern urban life” (Manet 1832-1833 (exhibition catalogue), Galeries nationales du Grand Palais, Paris & The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1983, p. 29).
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