Until 15th January 2023, the National Gallery is devoting a small exhibition to the Portrait of Eva Gonzalès by Édouard Manet (1832-83). Unlike other works by Manet, this painting took a long time to complete and lacked his usual spontaneity. It took Manet 40 attempts to paint Gonzalès’ face, and x-ray fluorescence (XRF) scanning reveals the artist reworked the background several times. Whilst the in-depth study of the painting has provided a detailed account of Manet’s process, the sitter is of equal interest. Eva Gonzalès was a French Impressionist painter who started receiving tuition from Manet in 1869 at the age of 20. Successful female painters were not abundant at the time, and there was the misconception that women could only paint things like flowers and lacked the ability to tackle more complicated subjects. Eva Gonzalès proved everyone wrong.
Gonzalès was born in Paris on 19th April 1849, where she grew up in sophisticated literary circles. Her father, Emmanuel Gonzalès (1815-87), served as the president of the Société des gens de lettres de France (Society of People of Letters of France), which many notable writers attended, such as Victor Hugo (1802-85), George Sand (1804-76) and Alexandre Dumas (1802-70). Exposed to new ideas about art and literature at a young age, Gonzalès desired to become an artist, so she started receiving lessons from Charles Chaplin (1825-91), a French landscape and portrait painter.
Most French art schools did not admit women until the end of the 19th century, so many studied at home or in private studios. In 1853, Chaplin opened a women-only studio; and in 1868, the Academie Julian opened its doors to both men and women. For the first time, women were allowed to study from the life model (i.e. nude), despite the opinion that it was inappropriate and morally damaging for ladies. Despite this, women could only exhibit paintings deemed “feminine” at public exhibitions. Nor could they attend discussions with fellow (male) artists to learn about modern art subjects without a chaperone, meaning access to some of the art world remained denied to women.
In 1869, Gonzalès met Manet, who was initially hesitant to discuss his work due to receiving poor reviews at exhibitions. Over time, Manet began to come out of his shell and took Gonzalès on as his only formal pupil. Manet started his portrait of Gonzalès in 1869, eventually finishing it for the Paris Salon in 1870. Unfortunately, it overshadowed all the paintings Gonzalès submitted that year. Instead, critics assumed Gonzalès was a young, decorative model rather than an artist. Manet positioned her at an easel, painting a still-life of flowers, befitting the ideals of a female artist. In reality, Gonzalès had never produced a still life at that time, preferring to paint portraits.
Eventually, the Salon began to take Gonzalès’ work seriously. Whilst Manet developed a brighter, more fluid painting style, Gonzalès stuck to neutral colours and attention to detail. Critics often referred to Gonzalès’ “feminine technique”, but this changed after producing Une loge aux Théâtre Italiens (1874), which they described as full of “masculine vigour”. Unfortunately, this led several people to assume Manet had produced the painting.
Although Gonzalès is categorised as an Impressionist artist, she never exhibited her work at the Impressionist exhibitions. Whether this was a personal choice or the advice of her tutor, Manet, who did not exhibit with the Impressionist either, is uncertain. Rather than making visible brushstrokes and the focusing on the effects of light in her paintings, Gonzalès concentrated on exploring her identity and moving away from the woman Manet portrayed in Portrait of Eva Gonzalès.
In 1879, Gonzalès married Henri Guérard (1846-97), a French graphic artist who worked for Manet as an engraver. Gonzalès frequently used her husband as a model in her paintings, such as The Donkey Ride (1880), which also features Gonzalès’ sister, Jeanne. Whilst this painting is unfinished, it reveals Gonzalès’s technique of hatching in the landscape with long strokes in the style of many Impressionist artists. By contrast, Jeanne’s face and blue dress are smoothly painted and evenly worked, suggesting the outcome would have looked very different when completed.
Jeanne posed more frequently than Gonzalès’s other models. In 1872, Gonzalès produced her first major work, Indolence, featuring her younger sister looking out of an open window. The French novelist and critic Émile Zola (1840-1902) commented on the nostalgic mood, likening Jeanne to “a virgin fallen from a stained-glass window.” The painting style reflects Gonzalès’ first art teacher’s tuition, but elements of Impressionism are evident in the quick brushstrokes used to form the edges of the curtain and the small bunch of blue flowers on the window sill. The ambivalent expression on Jeanne’s face is also something Gonzalès picked up from Manet.
Gonzalès painted Jeanne almost every day in a variety of guises. Shortly after Gonzalès’ marriage, she dressed her sister in her wedding gown and produced a pastel drawing for the 1880 Salon. The dynamic hatching, likely influenced by Manet, was praised by critics despite the previous thinking that the medium was unsuitable for the “delicate touch” of female artists.
Entitled The Bride, the pastel drawing was strangely prophetic. At the end of April 1883, Gonzalès gave birth to a son, Jean Raimond. A day or so after the birth, Gonzalès learnt Manet had passed away on 30th April. On 6th May, Gonzalès followed suit, passing away due to childbirth complications. She was only 34 years old. The pastel drawing of The Bride was discovered amongst Gonzalès’ personal belongings after her death. Her husband kept the painting and later married Gonzalès sister, Jeanne.
Over time, the French government purchased Gonzalès’ paintings for public galleries, although some were sold to private collectors. During her short life, Gonzalès started making a name for herself across France, Belgium and England, where her paintings were featured in the newspaper L’Art. Unfortunately, as a woman, she received less attention than her male contemporaries and her work was gradually forgotten.
Due to the hindrance placed on female artists, Gonzalès’ most common themes were portraits and domestic scenes of women and children. Whilst she produced a few landscapes, she could not wander the streets like male Impressionists, seeking out locations to paint. Some of Gonzalès’ outdoor scenes were likely staged, such as Nanny and Child (1877-78), which she painted in Dieppe, a city on the coast of Normandy that she frequently visited. The nanny takes centre stage, blocking the only exit from the garden so the child cannot escape. The painting received mixed reviews, with some saying the image of the nanny was too flat, almost like a Japanese print. Others praised the artwork for the same reason, particularly Impressionists, who frequently imitated Japanese prints in their work.
Under Manet’s tuition, Gonzalès experimented with many Impressionist techniques as she gradually developed her own style. Awakening Woman depicts her sister, Jeanne, lying in bed in the soft light of the morning. The contours of the model’s nightgown and the bed sheets almost blend into one expanse of white. Gonzalès cropped the image to focus on the upper body of her sister rather than the entire room. Other Impressionists also used this “snapshot” technique to create a sense of capturing a brief moment of someone’s life, as a camera might do.
Gonzalès’ later works show she detached herself from the Realist style of Charles Chaplin. She also began to separate from Manet’s techniques, gradually absorbing the sketchy painting style of other Impressionist artists. Whilst Luncheon on the Grass (1882) remains unfinished, the manner of painting is very different from her unfinished The Donkey Ride from two years previously. Rather than hatching in the background, Gonzalès wielded her paintbrush more like a pastel crayon, filling in areas with blocks or scribbles of colour.
Similar to Awakening Woman, Gonzalès cropped the scene to focus on one attendee of the Luncheon on the Grass. As usual, the model is her sister Jeanne, who holds a red fan, suggesting it is a hot day. With her elbow resting on a wooden chair, it is unknown whether Jeanne is alone, deep in thought, or if others are out of shot. If the latter, the cropping of the picture makes Jeanne appear isolated, as though she feels out of place in the company of others.
Since her death, Gonzalès’ work has been featured at the Salons de La Vie Moderne (1885), the Salon d’Automne (1907), and several galleries in Paris. The Musée National des Beaux-Arts in Monte Carlo also held an exhibition in 1952. Since then, her paintings have been mostly forgotten until now. The National Gallery goes into great depth about Manet’s Portrait of Eva Gonzalès, going as far as to show x-ray images of the painting. Whilst it is the main feature of the exhibition, the portrait allows the gallery to explore some of the works of Eva Gonzalès, including Une loge aux Théâtre Italiens, The Donkey Ride, Indolence and The Bride. The exhibition also features a handful of other female artists who proved women were not restricted to “feminine” themes. Artists include Ellen Sharples (1793-1838), Gwen John (1876-1939), Milly Childers (1866-1922) and Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807).
Discover Manet & Eva Gonzalès is open until 15th January 2023 at the National Gallery in London. Admission is free.