MANET’S ‘LE PRINTEMPS’
Edouard Manet’s Le Printemps (SPRING)
This portrait painting by Manet called Le Printemps (‘Spring’) from 1881 has just fetched an astonishing $65.1 at Christie’s in New York. The flowery portrait which depicts the actress Jeanne Demarsy was to have been part of a quartet of allegorical paintings representing the four seasons and commissioned by his friend Antonin Proust, but only this and L’Automne (below, held at the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Nancy) were completed before the artist’s death. Demarsy was a popular actress and very fashionable figure, and is shown here wearing a fashionable and for the time, rather racy, very tight Belle Epoque corset. Both paintings were submitted to the Paris Salon of 1881 (the other was Manet’s more intriguing painting A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, held at the Courtauld Institute). It was under pressure from Proust that the French government awarded Manet the Légion d’honneur in that same year. The uncontroversial painting was a huge success for Manet, considered by the critics to be exquisite and charming and finally an uncontested public triumph for the artist after years of scandal thanks to paintings such as Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia from previous decades.
Le Printemps had been held in a private collection for over a century and for the last two decades was on loan to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. It was purchased by the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and so will soon be available to the public once again. Certainly not a masterpiece like Folies-Bergère, however this fresh depiction of a pretty young woman is eminently saleable. In fact it’s the third work by Manet that Getty has bought in the same number of years, having already purchased his Portrait of Mme. Brunet (1863) and the nice pastel portrait Portrait of Julien de la Rochenoire (1882). The $65.1 however that Getty paid for Le Printemps is the most he’s ever spent at auction. According to Timothy Potts, Getty director: “It is a work of extraordinary quality and beauty, epitomizing Manet’s influential conception of modernity, and executed at the height of his artistic powers—but, tragically, when he was already afflicted with the illness that would soon lead to his early death.”
I like the way that Manet uses a black ribbon for Demarsy’s bonnet that cuts through the general frilly white prettiness which would otherwise be completely over the top. Manet was unusual amongst the Impressionists for his use of black – other painters would show black made up of the many different dark colours reflected in it – as indeed it does truly appear in nature. But Manet’s paintings for all their brilliant Impressionist technique – seen here in the daring loose brushwork below – often seem to me to contain a very deliberate element of artificiality and often flatness – one thinks of his Portrait of Emile Zola for instance or indeed his Portrait of Mme. Brunet which also exemplifies his love of expansive, flat, black colour but which apparently upset it’s subject so much that she fled in tears. Here the black streak of ribbon sets off the brilliant blue of the sky and the rest of the colours in the painting and seems to make them appear all the more vibrant and spring-like. Manet’s use of black owes a lot to Japanese Ukiyo-e prints which he collected and in fact with her closed expression and summer parasol Demarsy rather reminds me of one of those Japanese ladies. I also like the way that although the beautiful actress is clearly depicted so as to invite our admiration and gaze, she maintains a certain self-contained quality and gazes firmly away from the viewer and doesn’t simper like Renoir’s ladies-in-landscapes, remaining unsmiling.
Below, Manet’s ‘L’Automne’ completed in 1881 only two years before the artist’s death is very typical in his use of expansive, fairly flat black paint. I think she looks a bit like a raven.