Madame Manet

oil painting of woman sitting with hair pinned up, and high collar

Madame Manet, ca. 1876
Oil on canvas
23 7/8 × 20 in. (60.6 × 50.8 cm)
Norton Simon Art Foundation, Gift of Mr. Norton Simon, Pasadena, California

 

Suzanne Leenhoff was born in Delft in 1829. A talented pianist, she joined the Manet household in 1849 as the family’s music teacher and, in 1863, married Édouard Manet. Baudelaire wrote to a mutual friend that Manet’s new wife was reportedly “beautiful, very kind, and a very great artist.”

Manet painted his wife’s portrait at least thirteen times. The Norton Simon portrait seems to capture her unguarded likeness with unstudied immediacy. Manet left portions of bare canvas visible, and many of the key lines of the dress, in particular, have been laid down in single, masterful strokes. However, these effects were highly calculated. Manet’s paint layers comprise varied washes and glazes that required drying time between application, and he revised his subject significantly, painting out a large black hat that is now visible as a pentimento around her head.

Much to his sitters’ frustration, Manet was infamous for revising his portraits. Isabelle Lemonnier, one of the artist’s favorite models, recounted that “he was endlessly starting my portraits over again. He destroyed I know not how many studies in front of me.” Perhaps because he knew his methods often tried his models’ patience, Manet may have asked his wife to sit for this and a related portrait in the Metropolitan Museum of Art before settling on the pose and colors eventually used to depict Madame Jules Guillemet in his ambitious Salon submission In the Conservatory (1879).

The signature, which lacks the fluency of those seen in the other two paintings, was probably added by someone when, in need of money, Madame Manet sold her portrait in the 1890s.