Edouard Manet met the artist Berthe Morisot in 1868, when they were introduced by Henri Fantin-Latour. Over the next several years, Morisot often served as Manet’s model, figuring in no fewer than ten of his paintings, most of them intimate, informal portraits that reveal his fascination with her as a physical presence. The end of their collaboration roughly coincided with Morisot’s marriage to Manet’s brother Eugène in 1874. This watercolor is closely related to a painting, traditionally regarded as the last in the series, in which Morisot appears in the same pose but set against palm leaves and a bit of upholstery (1874; Paris, private collection). The freshness, delicacy, and freedom of the Art Institute’s sheet suggest that it is a preliminary study for the oil rather than a copy after it.
Here, as in many of Manet’s depictions of her, Morisot strikes an eccentric pose: leaning slightly to the left and gazing off to the right, she holds in her right hand an open fan, steadying its vertical tip between the thumb and two middle fingers of her left hand, the remaining two digits of which are splayed. The tremulous forms of the latter stand out against her black shawl, donned in mourning for her father, who had died the previous January. Morisot’s prominent chin, upturned nose, and lips—more voluptuous here than in the painting—are rendered with a gentle economy, as are her eyes, which telegraph a nervous vulnerability. Even so, the figure as a whole conveys intelligence, grace, and social aplomb. Although Manet further accentuated these qualities in the more considered oil, it is this sheet that most strongly conveys the intensity and complexity of his immediate response to Morisot.
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