Letter Decorated with a Snail on a Leaf, 1880. Watercolor (design), pen and ink (text) on machine-made laid paper, 6 1⁄4 × 4 5⁄8 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2019.7

A tiny treasure by Édouard Manet has just joined the collection of the J. Paul Getty Museum. Roughly half the size of today’s standard printer paper, this work began its life as a letter, neatly folded in half and slipped into an envelope. I like to imagine its recipient, perhaps sitting at the breakfast table, opening her mail to discover an exquisite watercolor made just for her. Here a life-sized, bright yellow snail perches on a fallen leaf, which casts its shadow across the page over the artist’s brief—almost banal—note:

Dear Madam,
Don’t forget the ream of English paper.
Best wishes,
E. Manet.

Manet—the great painter of modern Paris, the hero of the Impressionist generation, the leading artist-provocateur of his age—penned these lines at a difficult moment in his life. He was stuck in Bellevue, a suburban spa town west of Paris, where his doctors had sent him for a course of medical treatment. He spent the summer and fall of 1880 there in a vain attempt to slow the advancing symptoms of tertiary syphilis.

He had already begun to drag his left leg—he would lose the leg and then his life, at age 51, in the spring of 1883— and he often found it difficult to summon the stamina required to paint in oils. Bored and lonely, he passed the time by filling the margins of his letters to friends and colleagues back in Paris or off on vacation with delicate watercolors.

Virtuosic Simplicity

The resulting works are the most intimate he ever produced. As the great Manet specialist Françoise Cachin once remarked, these seemingly casual displays of virtuosity tell us “more about their author than the rest of his correspondence combined.” Here we seem to catch a glimpse of the painter in private reverie, as he sketched plums and morning glories from the garden, sunbathing cats, visiting acquaintances, a split chestnut, a watering can, and so on. The designs are deceptively simple, conjured with a few strokes of colored wash, but close examination reveals a quite amazing degree of forethought and technical complexity.

In the newly acquired work, for example, Manet carefully laid in the design with light gray watercolor, which helped establish the boundary for more fluidly applied yellow and blue-green. These colors crisscross and bleed into each other, giving the leaf depth and form. A dot of bright blue punctuates the stem at left, while a few strokes of brownish red delineate the contours of the small, gleaming shell. The snail offers a laconic metaphor for the artist’s own situation in 1880, more or less trapped in a garden by the paralyzed leg that slowed his movements to a snail’s pace.

A New Need for Paper

Although the identity of the letter’s lucky recipient is uncertain, the artist’s instruction that she “not forget the ream of English paper” is clear enough. Manet’s renewed interest in watercolor at Bellevue demanded a continuous supply of paper, sometimes brought by visitors from Paris. For the artist and his contemporaries, watercolor was a quintessentially English medium; he used an English-made watercolor set, which now belongs to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and many of his illustrated letters, including this one, bear English watermarks.

About 40 watercolors made at Bellevue survive. The Musée d’Orsay is home to 16, collected in an album. The rest are scattered across Europe and North America. The Getty’s newly acquired example will appear in the upcoming exhibition Manet and Modern Beauty, co-organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago, where the show will open this spring. Focused on the final years of the artist’s life, this exhibition will feature the largest group of the Bellevue watercolors ever assembled outside of France, some 15 works generously lent from public and private collections.

A Mysterious “Madame”

Manet sent some of his illustrated letters to fellow artists, who occasionally responded in kind, and others to favorite models. Many of his correspondents were women, to whose wit and beauty the watercolors pay gallant tribute. We may not know for certain who opened the envelope to find our snail, but the salutation “Chère Madame” tells us she was a woman.

The artist’s instruction about bringing paper may provide a further clue, since it connects the Getty letter to one in the Morgan Library & Museum where Manet wrote, “Tell Jules that his paper suits me fine.” Sent in June or early July to a young model known as Mademoiselle Marguerite, the Morgan letter alludes to the recipient’s brother-in-law: Jules Guillemet.

Letter to Mademoiselle Marguerite, 1880, Édouard Manet. Pen, ink, and watercolor on paper, 7 7/8 x 4 7/8 in. The Morgan Library & Museum, MA 4716.1. Purchased on the Gordon N. Ray Fund, 1991.

Mademoiselle Marguerite was the younger sister of one of Manet’s favorite models around 1880, a stylish parisienne called Madame Guillemet. She and her husband, Jules, had posed for the 1879 Salon painting In the Conservatory, now in the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, and they visited Manet at Bellevue at least twice during the summer of 1880. A handful of letters from Manet to Madame Guillemet survive at the Musée Orsay, the Art Institute of Chicago, and in a private collection: testaments to a playful, flirtatious friendship. Thanks to the Morgan letter, we know that Monsieur Guillemet supplied Manet with paper at Bellevue, and so it seems quite possible that the “Madame” to whom the Getty letter is addressed was Madame Guillemet.

Displayed in the exhibition alongside seldom-seen letters to Madame Guillemet and Mademoiselle Marguerite, the newly acquired sheet will help us paint a clearer picture of Manet’s world in the last years of his short life.

Manet and Modern Beauty will be on view at the Art Institute of Chicago from May 26 to September 8, 2019, and at the Getty Center from October 8, 2019, to January 12, 2020.