Towards the end of his life, Impressionist painter Édouard Manet’s health progressively failed, and he abandoned oil painting for the faster, less taxing medium of pastel. He liked to be surrounded by pretty women, whether of the demimonde or fashionable society, whose conversation and coquetry raised his spirits.
Of eighty-eight pastels inventoried, more than seventy are quarter- or half-length portraits of women. With their hastily sketched features in a corolla of lace, ribbons and flowered hats, they seem to be portrayed as blossoms. The often neutral background, generally a pearl grey, brings out the brilliance of their pink complexion.
At the home of Méry Laurent – a glamorous beauty infatuated with society, a friend and love of artists from Mallarmé to Manet, and a muse of poetry and painting – Manet executed this portrait of a young woman who worked days as a seamstress. If at times he yielded to a facile prettiness that led to his being sought after by his delighted models, here there is no trace of Parisian chic, no artifice. There is only the sober black ribbon and plain tulle collaret, the bronze lustre of the chestnut hair and delicate red of the carnation, the wistful expression of a humble girl.