In an exhibition at the National Gallery of London, technical analyses reveal a painstaking work by Manet

Dec 22, 2022

40 shades of pink

Manet sent a letter to Eva Gonzalès, who was 22 at the time, and her mother, inviting them to come to his studio so he could make a portrait of her, who was wishing to become a painter. Her family eventually agreed and shortly thereafter, Gonzalès became Manet’s pupil and Manet continued for several months to complete his portrait of her.

We see the painting now at the National Gallery where it is the subject of the current (free) exhibition.

In fact, the painting is far from being realistic and spontaneous, two of the supposedly characteristics of Manet’s poetics. The technical analyses, that are exhibited together with the painting, reveal that it has been reworked about 40 times!

In the work, the sitter wears a formal white dress, somewhat impractical for the messy activity of painting, and daubs at a floral still-life on an easel (the painting being already framed, which is rather awkward).

In fact, the painting typifies, as many have noted, a clique feminine amateur artist, who works in a bourgeois sophisticated room with a super expensive carpet, rests her feet on a footrest while absent-mindedly producing flowers.

A contemporary female artist, Berthe Morisot, indeed wrote that Manet delayed finishing the work, struggling to satisfactorily capture her face: “he has begun her portrait over again for the twenty-fifth time. . . She poses every day, and every night the head is washed out with black soap”. And it appears she was not trash talking. It was the true!

Meanwhile Eva Gonzalès continued to paint and produce artworks till her death just 5 days after that of Manet, because of complications during the delivery of her baby, when she was only 34.

Eva Gonzalès, A Loge at the Théâtre des Italiens, 1874, (first exhibited 1879), oil on canvas, 98 x 130 cm (Musée d’Orsay, Paris)

But have you heard of her before? Gonzalès’ identity and the critical reception of her oeuvre have been generally overshadowed by Manet’s portrait of her, even if she produced masterpieces, admired by her contemporaries.

We wonder what would be the result of technical analyses on her oeuvre. 40 versions before a final one, also in her case? We doubt. In all cases, keep an eye on her name. Female painters are, finally, in demand although it is probably far the time in which they will overshadow their male colleagues.

Anna Pelagotti
Anna Pelagotti