The Getty Museum’s new Manet
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The first thing one might say about the well-known portrait by Edouard Manet (1832-1883) just acquired by the J. Paul Getty Museum is this: Poor Madame Brunet!
It was bad enough that she had to refuse an unflattering picture of her painted by a family friend, reacting in horror when first she laid eyes on it at his Paris studio. The artist, unruffled, then had the nerve to include the picture in an 1863 gallery exhibition of recent paintings, where anyone who wandered in could see it -- including all her friends. Zut alors!
At least a caricaturist came to the lady’s defense. Scrawled across a rudimentary drawing of the portrait, an anonymous sketch now in the collection of Paris’ Bibliotheque Nationale, is the exclamation, ‘La...femme de son ami!!!’ As the ellipsis and all those exclamation points underscore, if Manet was willing to do such a thing to ‘the woman of his friend,’ what kind of cad was he?
When Manet’s portrait goes on view in Brentwood on Dec. 13, it will be easy to see why Mme. Brunet was not amused -- even presuming she was indeed as homely as Manet portrayed her, with a rather hard, blank, mask-like face. Her exact identity is unknown today, since more than one fellow with the last name Brunet was in the artist’s circle, while the record of the painting left in the artist’s studio when he died described the picture only as ‘a woman with a glove, dressed in 1850s style.’ But Manet was determined not to play the part of conventionally ambitious artist here, flattering his client in paint on canvas.
Theodore Duret, a French journalist and critic, later reported the fateful encounter between sitter and artist: ‘One of his first portraits, done in 1860, was of a young lady, a friend of his family. He had painted her standing, life-size. It seems she was not pretty. Following his own inclinations, he must have accentuated her distinctive facial features. In any event, when she saw herself on the canvas, and the way she looked there, she began to cry -- it is Manet himself who told me about this -- and left the studio with her husband, wanting never to see the picture again.’
One of Manet’s ‘inclinations’ at the time -- and the work’s precise start date of 1860 isn’t certain -- was to learn everything he could from Spanish painting, especially Velázquez (1599-1660). The wife of Napoleon III was from Granada, and as Empress Eugenie had made all things Spanish fashionable in Paris. By 1863 the influence of Manet’s Iberian predecessor would be turning up all over his work, including scandalous pictures like ‘Luncheon on the Grass’ and ‘Olympia.’
Manet was enthralled with Velázquez’s remarkable use of black as a lush and luxurious color. It’s the dominant hue in Mme. Brunet’s portrait, from her large velvet hat, voluminous coat and lace-trimmed dress to the painterly delineation of those ‘distinctive facial features.’ He might even have added the bland, woodsy landscape background long after she rejected the painting -- the anonymous caricature doesn’t include it -- by borrowing from a portrait of King Philip IV of Spain as a hunter; the Louvre Museum acquired that painting in May 1862, mistakenly thinking it was by Velázquez. (It’s probably by the Spaniard’s son-in-law.) The French painter traveled to Madrid in 1865 to see more of his idol’s work.
The Getty, alas, doesn’t own anything by the incomparable Velázquez -- although it could. Reportedly only four documented Velázquez paintings are not already in museum collections, none of them in Southern California; but a recently discovered, modestly sized and very handsome portrait bust of an unknown gentleman hits the block at Bonham’s London auction house on Wednesday. (A Bonham’s video about the painting is here.) I saw the rare picture recently and, while it needs a thorough cleaning, the painting appears to be in very good condition, except for a minor paint loss above the sitter’s left eyebrow. The distinguished fellow’s ruddy, fleshy face rests lightly inside a crisp white collar atop a flat-black torso. A British export license will be needed to take the painting out of the country. It isn’t certain to be granted, but the chances seem quite good. There’s no shortage of exceptional Velázquez paintings already in U.K. museums, while huge funds are still being sought to retain a great Titian for Britain’s National Gallery. A major Poussin recently got the green light for a Texas museum; the Getty itself acquired an important Turner from the Earl of Rosebery in the spring and other masterpieces have recently gotten export licenses. It would be a shame if the Getty let the Velázquez go by.
Probably the closest the Getty’s existing collection gets to its new Manet is an arresting, full-length 1804 portrait by Francisco Goya of Marquesa de Santiago, also shown standing in a landscape. In her ankle-length black dress and dramatic white mantilla, the wide-eyed lady stares you down. The depiction of the infamously dissolute Marquesa, like Manet’s blunt rendering of poor Mme. Brunet, skips the urge to fantasize about ideal beauty in oil paint on canvas. Instead, the artist goes after something rather more direct.
Like Manet, Goya had learned a lot from Velázquez too.
-- Christopher Knight