The title of this exhibition refers to an event that took place in 1904, when the Irish painter, novelist, critic and playwright George Moore saw Édouard Manet’s painting of Eva Gonzalés in Dublin, declaring that “the portrait of Mademoiselle Gonzalés is what Dublin needs.” This somewhat grandiloquent statement was made at the public unveiling of the painting by Hugh Lane, the gallery founder, 34 years after the portrait was completed. Lane was an early champion of the modernist movement, and the institution that bears his name today, founded in 1908, is internationally renowned as the first museum dedicated exclusively to modern art.
Manet is a pivotal figure in the history of modernism: the French painter is credited as one of the originators of the movement in the 19th century insofar as he, on the one hand, explicitly rejected the requirement to depict one’s subjects as realistically as possible and, on the other hand, selected non-traditional subjects that were new and emerging in his lifetime. For instance, his painting Olympia was of a prostitute who visibly confronts the viewer with her gaze, breaking what we would anachronistically call the ‘fourth wall’.
Olympia utterly scandalised Parisian society when it was exhibited in 1865 – given its novelty of form and content, critics weren’t even sure how to begin to talk about Manet’s painting. The art critic T. J. Clark notes: “There was something about Olympia which eluded their normal frame of reference, and writers were almost fond of admitting they had no words for what they saw. Olympia was “informe,” “inconcevable,” “inqualifiable,” “indéchiffrable“; the picture “ne s’explique pas.”
Further evidence of Manet’s atypical approach to the life of a painter is that he only formally trained one student: Eva Gonzalés. Gonzalés was from a respectable literary family – her father was a novelist and playwright and her mother ran a popular salon – who were socially acquainted with Manet. Eva transitioned from studying at a studio to Manet’s private tutelage in 1869, at the age of 19. Manet and Gonzalés’ relationship was, from what we understand, platonic in nature and characterised by great respect and affection.
The exhibition materials quote a tender letter sent by Manet to Gonzalés during the Franco-Prussian War, in which the older painter touchingly states that “of all the privations the siege is inflicting on us, that of not seeing you is certainly one of the hardest to bear.” The intimacy of their friendship was not appreciated by everyone: Berthe Morisot, one of the original Impressionists with whom Manet socialised, wrote that Manet “lectures me and holds up that eternal Mademoiselle Gonzalés as an example; she has poise, perseverance; she is able to carry an undertaking to a successful issue, whereas I am not capable of anything.”
Venom aside, Morisot’s letter to her friend is a useful third-party record of the fact that Manet regularly spoke about Gonzalés in glowing terms. The esteem he felt for his pupil is palpable in the 1870 portrait that anchors and creates the impetus for this intriguing exhibition at the Hugh Lane. Eva Gonzalés is a large oil painting that dominates the space, featuring a pale woman in a luscious, satiny white dress with a black sash cinched around her waist. There is a sense of playful familiarity to the way the subject is portrayed – a small smile lingers across her lips as she paints a still-life of a vase of flowers. This playfulness is underwritten by the contrast that Manet stages between his sitter’s immaculate dress and the disordered floor, littered with leaves, flowers, parchment, and what looks like a torn seat-cushion. It’s as though we’re being let in on a private joke; the painter indicating that the luxuriousness of the dress’ fabric is pure artifice, something stuffy and at odds with their normal circumstances, which, given the daily routine of their friendship and shared profession, would involve a more casual interaction in a messier, relaxed environment.
As commanding as Manet’s portrait is, it is flanked by a pair of paintings that steal your attention away from the early modernist masterwork. Both are by Gonzalés. To the right is The Donkey Ride, circa 1880, which depicts an indifferent young woman sitting on a donkey, accompanied by an attentive man, perhaps a suitor. There’s something refreshingly fey and dissolute about the woman – the brightness of her skin and the blue fabric of her coat provide a counterpoint to the earthy hues that predominate throughout the rest of the composition. The model was Gonzalés’ own sister Jeanne, also a painter, and someone that Eva regularly sketched and painted in the course of her short life. Though neither Eva nor her mentor ever identified themselves as fully-fledged members of the Impressionist movement, Gonzalés’ brushwork in The Donkey Ride is influenced by their nascent aesthetic, possessing a simplicity and free-flowing spontaneity.
Better still is the painting to the left of Manet’s portrait, A Theatre Box at the Italiens from 1874. Here we glimpse another effort to modernise the practice of painting by selecting social environments and subjects that were contemporary at the time, without any precedent in the history of representation. The exhibition materials are unequivocal that Gonzalés was one of the first among her generation to depict the theatre box, and that this decision contained an additional element of social disruption insofar as it broke “from the domestic sphere to which women artists were frequently confined.” As before, Gonzalés renders a man and a woman, based on Jeanne and husband Henri Guérard, and the scene is strikingly animated; both figures, dressed in their evening regalia, seem to be happily engaged in observing the hustle and bustle of the theatre-goers in the stalls below them. As much as we tend to associate modernist art with alienation and abstraction, another key feature of the movement involves depicting the ordinary or everyday, and this scene, as dynamic as it may be, resembles the quotidian experiments of literary modernists like Mansfield, Woolf and Joyce.
Beyond this central room, there are three more. Two of the ensuing spaces are dedicated to examining the relationships and consequences of Manet’s work in the genre of figurative painting. A concrete instance of its impact on Dublin’s artistic community is found in William Orpen’s Homage to Manet, 1909. Orpen foregrounds a spirited discussion between a group of artists, led by George Moore, and in the background, dominating the room depicted in the painting as much as it does the room it actually hangs in, is the Gonzalés portrait. The sense that reality is telescoping is strongly felt, especially as a consequence of the painting’s proximity to the original. This effect is enhanced by the knowledge that the scene captures a well-known lecture by Moore on the subject of Manet’s painting. The Irish historian Roy Foster remarks that it is “one of Orpen’s supreme examples of mirror-effect, a painting of someone reading about paintings to a group of painters in front of a painting of a painter who is painting a painting.”
The following room contains a range of female portraits, some of which are selected for their relevance as aesthetic precursors to Manet’s painting, while others reflect the direction that female portraits took in the subsequent decades. Among the latter is a particularly compelling self-portrait by the artist Milly Childers, which echoes Gonzalés by the presence of the artist’s paint-brushes, and even, arguably, carries a genetic trace of Manet’s Olympia in the subject’s assertive gaze. The third room, set to one side, is distinct from the others inasmuch as it provides some historical context surrounding Manet’s portraiture and includes an excellent video describing the process by which he worked. As you may expect, Manet obsessed over his painting, sketching and erasing time and again several features of the composition. It was clearly a labour of love.
Eva Gonzalès Is What Dublin Needs is at the Hugh Lane Gallery until September 18.
Words: Tom Lordan