Monday, April 21, 2008

Model Student

Édouard Manet must have seen something special in Eva Gonzales to take her on as his only true student. Born April 19, 1849, Gonzales came from a cultured family. Her father wrote novels and her mother played music. Despite that cultured background, Gonzales had to model for Manet and several other Impressionists before gaining entry into their circle. Once initiated, however, Gonzales proved a quick study. Her painting A Box at the Théâtre des Italiens (above, from 1874) shows her sister Jeanne and husband Henri Guérard in a pose similar to Manet’s The Balcony, which showed Manet’s other female protégé Berthe Morisot and her husband, Manet’s brother Eugene. Like Morisot and many other women artists, Gonzales painted many scenes of friends and family, restricted by the mores of the time from the more outrageous subjects Manet and others depicted. Gonzales Box differs from Manet’s Balcony in her inclusion of a musical or theater theme, something close to her heart considering her family history in the arts.

I remember seeing one of Gonzales’ seascapes pushed off to a far corner of the PMA’s 2004 exhibition Manet and the Sea. I’m not sure if it was her Plage de Dieppe vue depuis la falaise Ouest (above, from 1871), but it was something similar. Again, she copies Manet to an extent, but differs as well. Manet’s marks his seascapes with strong narratives—men rowing in boats or ships in rough seas. Gonzales, however, paints from a distance, allowing the haze of the sea air to blanket over the scene. It’s tempting to ascribe the difference to gender, but I think there’s definitely a softer feel to her work that approaches Whistler in some ways. Whistler, too, found wallspace in the Manet and the Sea exhibition, but much more prominently than Gonzales did. Looking back, it seems like it would have been quite easy to move Gonzales’ works without anyone noticing.

Gonzales’ Morning Awakening (above, from 1876) shows how far she moved away from the influence of Manet and his dark, Velázquez –inspired style. There’s a great gentleness to this picture that, for example, Manet’s Olympia, for all its greatness, lacks. Again, I hesitate to label Gonzales as softer and gentler for fear of falling for all the old gender roles, but such labels seem truly to fit in with what she attempted and achieved. Gonzales exhibited her work annually at the Paris Salon, testifying to her acceptance among contemporaries. Sadly, Gonzales died in childbirth when only 34 years old, less than a week after Manet himself died. Because of that short life and relatively short oeuvre, Gonzales usually falls to the second or even third tier of Impressionists. What she could have done with years of maturity and motherhood under her belt is a question that will never be answered.

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