With her flowery spring ensemble, her pert profile, and bright, leafy backdrop, Jeanne—also known as Spring—is a popular favorite at the Getty. This year we’re celebrating Jeanne and her maker, the great painter of modern Paris Édouard Manet, with the first exhibition ever devoted to the last years of his short life. Manet and Modern Beauty, co-organized by the Getty and the Art Institute of Chicago, opens on May 26 in Chicago and comes to Los Angeles on October 8.
A Bittersweet Success
When she made her debut at the Paris Salon in 1882, Jeanne marked a high point in Manet’s career. Best remembered for ambitious, provocative pictures painted in the early 1860s (think Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia), he had evolved in a very different direction some twenty years later. Intended as the first in a series of decorative paintings on the theme of the seasons, Jeanne (Spring) portrayed the young model and budding actress Jeanne Demarsy and scored an unqualified success with critics and the Salon public in 1882, a rare exception in Manet’s tumultuous and controversial career.
“Manet’s defenders are delirious, his detractors are stupefied, and Mlle Jeanne strolls past them, proud and coquettish…with a winning air,” enthused the critic Maurice Du Seigneur. For many observers, Manet had perfectly captured the chic type of the modern parisienne. As Paul Demeny gushed: “This nice little face, pink beneath the rice powder, this turned-up nose, these pretty eyes sheltered under the poke bonnet, this whole image of the smart parisienne walking in a garden under a transparent parasol—it’s simply exquisite.”
Along with Jeanne’s success, a number of official honors bestowed on Manet in the early 1880s proved that he had reached a professional turning point, that his time had come at last. In 1881, after nearly two decades of official hostility, he received his first Salon medal, widely recognized as long overdue. Later that year he was named chevalier in the Légion d’Honneur, a distinction conferred by his longtime friend Antonin Proust, who had recently been appointed minister of fine arts (and who would also become Jeanne’s first owner).
These honors meant in turn that Manet’s submissions to the 1882 Salon would not be subject to vetting by the admissions jury and that his name would appear in the list of decorated artists at the front of the Salon catalogue, for the first and only time in his career.
Coming so late, though, these were bittersweet victories, tinged with lingering resentment against the artistic establishment and by a growing awareness of his own mortality. The painter’s declining health quickly overshadowed Jeanne’s triumph. For several years, he had suffered from tabes dorsalis (known in his day as locomotor ataxia), a degenerative disorder of the nervous system associated with tertiary syphilis. He walked with increasing difficulty and dragged his left leg. Since 1880 he had been pursuing hydrotherapy treatments and rest cures on the western outskirts of Paris, staying for extended periods first in Bellevue in 1880, then in Versailles in 1881, and finally, during the summer of 1882, in Rueil. To little avail.
Manet’s final months would be hard and painful. His last attempts at painting were frustrated by his impatience and by a mounting sense of desperation—even as he attempted to maintain his elegant social façade and downplay concerns about his health. Eventually, he was forced to abandon his studio, the condition in his leg worsening until gangrene forced an emergency amputation. He died in agony shortly thereafter, on April 30, 1883, just a day before the opening of that year’s Salon. He was fifty-one years old.
A Forgotten Side of Manet
As it happened then, Jeanne and its companion at the 1882 Salon, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, were Manet’s last important exhibition paintings. While Jeanne was clearly the favorite in 1882, it would be that was ultimately enshrined as the artist’s final masterpiece. Entering the collection of the Courtauld Institute of Art in the 1930s, it has since become one of the most famous paintings in the world and has generated a whole cottage industry of scholarly commentary.
Jeanne, on the other hand, eventually fell out of the public eye and never achieved the same level of exposure as it had in 1882. In 1909, after several exhibitions in Paris and elsewhere in Europe, the painting was bought by the New York collector Colonel Oliver Payne, and it remained in his family’s possession for nearly a century, until its sale in 2014 to the Getty Museum.
Manet and Modern Beauty seeks to rectify a history of neglect, to return Jeanne to the spotlight and, in so doing, to focus attention on the artist’s last years. Despite the ample attention accorded to the Bar, the rest of Manet’s production from the late 1870s and early 1880s has been largely overlooked. The paintings, drawings, and pastels that Manet produced in this period cannot properly be called “late.” Unlike Titian and Rembrandt (or his own close friends Claude Monet and Edgar Degas), Manet did not live long enough to develop an old-age style. Yet the works he produced in his last years differ from those of his earlier career in their lightness of spirit, of palette, and often of touch. Jeanne provides an ideal point of entry into this period, because it embodies the themes that consumed Manet’s attention in the last years of his life: fashion, femininity, and flowers. Jeanne resonates with his many portraits of stylish women from these years, with his modern-life genre scenes featuring parisiennes in their habitual urban and suburban settings, with his vibrant garden and conservatory paintings, and, not least, with his still lifes, particularly the luscious bouquets.
In unabashedly pretty pictures like Jeanne, Manet recast himself as a “painter of elegant women,” as one critic put it in a review of the artist’s 1880 solo exhibition at the gallery of La Vie Moderne, a trendy fashion, culture, and society magazine. This “feminine” turn in Manet’s practice was reinforced by his close association and dialogue with professional female artists like his longtime friend and sister-in-law Berthe Morisot, a founding member of the Impressionist group, and his former pupil Eva Gonzalès, an accomplished portrait and genre painter who was particularly admired for her pastels. His change of key was likewise encouraged by a close friendship with the demimondaine wit and beauty Méry Laurent, who encouraged Manet to paint flowers, shared his interest in the latest fashions, and successfully promoted his work among collectors. The change of direction is perhaps most obvious in the brilliant forays he made into media conventionally associated with female artists, notably watercolor—which he used to illustrate the letters he sent to friends from Bellevue—and pastel, his new medium of choice for portraits of women.
Predictably, gender bias has played a significant role in the reception of Manet’s late work. Masculinist historians of modern art in the twentieth century were quick to dismiss the late paintings and pastels as frivolous and superficial—“weak and flashy,” as Douglas Cooper put it. The eminent historian of Impressionism John Rewald proposed that Manet in his last year succumbed to a “dangerous tendency to faire joli” (that is, to make things pretty) and thus lost the avant-garde edge that had made his paintings of the 1860s so potent and provocative. In the eyes of these art historians, the critical and commercial success Manet was starting to enjoy in the early 1880s only made his late work more suspect.
The story of Manet’s illness and physical enfeeblement has also colored modern interpretations of the late work, and it’s true that Manet’s health problems had real consequences for his production. Illness curtailed his mobility and eventually made standing at his easel for long stretches impossible. New physical limitations help explain the relatively modest dimensions of many late oil paintings and probably contributed to the attraction of pastels and watercolors, which often required somewhat less time to complete. But to explain away the shift in Manet’s late work as a symptom of his illness is to undermine his agency, to disregard the many choices that produced his late style. Not all dying artists paint pretty women and flowers, after all, and few indeed turn out work as determinedly fresh and vivid as Manet’s.
“Beauty, Fashion, and Happiness”
The principal aim of Manet and Modern Beauty is to present the artist’s late work in a positive light, as an evolution of his practice that merits serious attention and rewards close looking. We can see in these works a culmination of Manet’s ambition to style himself “the painter of modern life,” as formulated in an 1863 essay by his friend Charles Baudelaire.
The critical force of Baudelaire’s essay comes from its upending of hierarchies. Minor genres, marginal modes of illustration, and passing fashions take center stage, replacing dusty academic notions of “ideal” or “eternal” beauty. “Modern” beauty, for Baudelaire, found its vitality and character in the fleeting, superficial, and contingent. Fashion was Baudelaire’s defining metaphor for modernity, and the sheer artifice of the feminine toilette in particular offered an irresistible subject to a new breed of artist, passionately dedicated to the transient beauty of the modern city. Baudelaire titled the first section of his essay “Beauty, Fashion, and Happiness.” This, we think, is a fine and poignant motto for Manet’s last works too. Fresh, intimate, and unapologetically pretty, the late work demonstrates his defiant embrace of beauty and pleasure in the teeth of acute physical suffering.
Baudelaire characterized the painter of modern life as a “convalescent,” who returned to the world avid, with sharply heightened senses. This was just how Manet left it.