A paragon of Parisian chic, Portrait de Madame Jules Guillemet is a quintessential example of Manet’s late practice. A towering figure in the second half of the nineteenth century, Édouard Manet was a dedicated artist strongly committed to transforming his medium into a record of contemporary life, particularly in his portraits. Throughout his lifetime, Manet surrounded himself with a wide circle of friends, admirers and supporters who inevitably found their way into his canvases, both in traditional portraits or as actors in scenes from modern day Paris. He insisted that these models endure prolonged and frequent sittings while he captured their essence on canvas, leaving a rich legacy of innovative portraits in his wake. The present work depicts Jeanne Julie Charlotte Besnier de la Pontonerie, who along with her husband, Jules Guillemet, were proprietors of a fashionable shop on Rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré. The Guillemets were counted among Manet’s many acquaintances and Madame Guillemet sat for a number of works by the artist completed near the end of his life. The couple was immortalized in one of Manet’s seminal works, Dans la serre, which was shown at the annual Salon of 1879. Madame Guillemet, known throughout Paris for beauty and elegance, has become the focus of Dans la serre no doubt due to her fashionable appearance and commanding presence.
Manet threw himself into the challenge of finding subjects, compositional formats and painting techniques that would provide a new language of art suitable for the representation of modernity and contemporary life. As the owner of a fashion boutique Madame Guillemet would have been considered the ideal subject in the artist’s search for the modern woman, La Parisienne. Within his scenes of modern life Manet frequently captured the bourgeoisie who shaped the image of Belle Époque Paris. The artist relished in depicting the fashions, accessories and settings of the modern era: “Manet was praised by critics for his skill in conjuring accurate and realistic portrayals of modern people wearing in the correct dress, displaying the proper attitude, and occupying the appropriate milieu for their socio-economic status” (Impressionism, Fashion, & Modernity (exhibition catalogue), The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York & Musée d’Orsay, Paris, 2013, p. 241).
In Portrait de Madame Jules Guillemet, the sitter’s role as a purveyor of the latest fashions—a crucial position within the bourgeois world consumed by the latest trends in attire—is echoed in her presentation. Executed with a quick flurry of animated, varied strokes of pigment, transferred to the canvas with seeming spontaneity and deference, the faint haze of a collar around the sitter’s neck and hint of a tie emerging from underneath point to her adoption of the latest trends in dress. Through the rapid wisps of paint used to define her eyes and cheeks a piquant expression emerges via the most economical means nd the intimate character of the sitter is uncovered. It is clear from the subtle characteristics of Madame Guillemet that Manet knew his model well, having spent long hours in her company. Indeed the background of the work contains a hint of the very bench used in her famed portrait Dans la serre. Since very few of the portraits Manet produced were commissions, but rather invitations from the artist to act as a subject in his works, the restrictive parameters of commercial portraits have been removed in the execution of Portrait de Madame Jules Guillemet, allowing the artist greater flexibility towards experimentation. As with many portraits from Manet’s oeuvre, the present work remained unsigned and was kept in his collection until his death in 1883.
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