One painting at a time, the Getty has been trying to address the familiar complaint that its museum grounds are more exciting than the collection inside. Toward that end, it has announced its acquisition of Édouard Manet’s “Portrait of Madame Brunet,” a prime-period, nearly full-length portrait made in the early 1860s.
This portrait of a lady in black standing against a pastoral background is the Getty's first big-ticket acquisition under its new president and CEO, James Cuno. He calls it a “painting by Manet at the height of his most inventive powers, done in the same year, 1863, he painted 'Olympia' and 'Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe.'” Cuno predicts that this work is “going to change our galleries the way Van Gogh’s 'Irises' did.”
The painting was purchased from an unidentified East Coast collector through the New York gallery Luhring Augustine. The price has not been disclosed, and the gallerists, in Miami for the art fairs, did not respond to a request for comment. The Getty paid $26.4 million over two decades ago for its other Manet, "The Rue Mosnier With Flags," from 1878.
The new acquisition, which will go on view Dec. 13, represents a different side of Manet than the politically engaged painter who depicted the flag-decorated street scene of Rue Mosnier. "Madame Brunet" is a classic portrait from the artist’s so-called Spanish period, reflecting the dark, dramatic influence of Goya and Velázquez despite the fact that Manet only spent a week in Spain before returning, homesick, to his native Paris.
The painting shows a woman dressed in black from head to toe staring rather vacantly at the viewer, as she holds one of her gloves at an odd angle. The skirt of her black coat widens generously at the bottom of the canvas like the tree behind her does at top. It is not quite a full-length portrait — a few years after completing the image, Manet evidently cropped the bottom edge of the canvas to resize it, a common practice of his.
Little is known about the woman in the portrait, as there were multiple Brunet families in the artist’s orbit. But according to an account published by Manet’s friend, the art critic Théodore Duret, the sitter burst into tears upon seeing the painting and never claimed the work. The canvas remained with the artist until his death.
Getty senior curator Scott Schaefer said he understands why the sitter rejected the work. “It’s not flattering; it’s a challenging picture,” he said, calling the mood “plaintive” and the image “confounding.” Still, he says, the Getty board of trustees was enthusiastic about the painting. “To be quite honest I thought this was a difficult picture, but the board was attracted to the sitter as well as the fact it was beautifully painted. It’s in extraordinary condition and the blacks are unbelievable.”
He added that the Getty recognized the importance of bringing the work to the L.A. area, which currently has five Manet paintings, including three at the Norton Simon and one small work at the Hammer Museum. “This is a significant addition to what I would call the greater museum of Los Angeles, which is how I present any picture to the board,” said Schaefer.
Asked for her take on the painting this week, Yale art historian and "Manet Manette" author Carol Armstrong spoke of the picture’s “ungainly” and masculine-seeming imagery. “It’s not a beautiful painting, but it’s an important one, which is very characteristic of his early period.”
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Image: "Portrait of Madame Brunet" by Edouard Manet, 1860-63, reworked by 1867. Credit: The J. Paul Getty Museum.