Berthe Morisot with Bouquet of Violets

Apart from Le Balcon which is not a portrait in the narrow sense, Manet painted Berthe Morisot ten times. Each canvas is quite different in mood, presentation and setting. Neither artist nor sitter wrote of these portraits at the time; and Morisot, in her family letters, referred only once to posing for Manet after all the excitement that had surrounded Le Balcon. Writing to her sister Edma in the summer of 1871, she told of a meeting at one of the Manet's Thursday soirees:
"Once more he thinks me not too unattractive, and wants to take me back as his model. Out of sheer boredom, I shall end by proposing this very thing myself." But evidently no sittings took place in 1871.

The eventual result of this renewed invitation to pose was Berthe Morisot au bouquet de violettes, the only portrait actually dated by Manet to the year 1872. Although initially it did not belong to her, but to Theodore Duret, Morisot later bought it at Duret's sale in 1894, a year before her death.

The most brilliant evocation of this supreme masterpiece was written by Paul Valbry, Berthe's nephew by marriage, who clearly knew it intimately. It was used as his peroration in the preface he contributed to the catalogue of the Manet centenary exhibition of 1932.
"I place nothing in Manet's oeuvre higher than a certain portrait of Berthe Morisot, dated 1872."

"Against the light neutral background of a gray curtain, the face is painted slightly smaller than life."

"Before all else, the Black, the absolute black, the black of a mourning hat, and the little hat's ribbons mingling with the chestnut locks and their rosy highlights, the black that is Manet's alone, affected me."

"It is held by a broad black band, passing behind the left ear, encircling and confining the neck; and the black cape over the shoulders reveals a glimpse of fair skin at the parting of a white linen collar."

"These luminous deep black areas frame and present a face with eyes black and too large, and expression rather distant and abstracted. The paintwork is fluid, easy, obedient to the supple handling of the brush; and the shadows of this face are so transparent, the light so delicate, that the tender, precious substance of Vermeer's head of a young woman, in the museum at The Hague, comes to mind."

"But here the execution seems more ready, more free, more immediate. The modern moves swiftly, and would act before the impression fades."


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