Eva Gonzalès’ ‘Nanny and Child’ at the National Gallery of Art was his masterpiece.

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Ten years before painting this image of a child and her nanny, exhibited at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Eva Gonzalès was a rival of Berthe Morisot for the attentions of Édouard Manet. The letters suggest that they were in competition, in part, for Manet’s affections (although married, Manet was flirtatious and charming). But it was even more, I think, a competition for self-confidence – something in which the two women, as they struggled to find their voice in the male-dominated Parisian art world, felt that Manet could play a role.

And that is what he did. Morisot got particularly close to Manet, posing for a series of his paintings and etchings during the very period (1869-1874) that saw him flourish as an artist. She then exhibited in all Impressionist exhibitions except one. Gonzalès, for her part, the daughter of a musician and a writer, became Manet’s unofficial pupil in 1869.

When Gonzalès painted “Nanny and Child”, around 1877-1878, it seemed that she was still under his spell. I say this not because the job lacks confidence or conviction – it has both in spades – but because it looks like a deliberate response to Manet’s “The Railway” 1873.

"The railroad" by Edouard Manet.
“Le Chemin de fer” by Edouard Manet. (National Gallery of Art, Washington / National Gallery of Art, Washington)

The two paintings are double portraits. Each represents a nanny looking at the viewer and a child with her back. Manet showed the child looking through the bars of an iron railing beside a railroad track near his studio in Paris. He allowed us to glimpse just the edge of his face, or what the French call the lost profile (lost profile). When critics saw “Le Chemin de fer” at the annual Paris Salon, they jumped at the seeming perversity of a double portrayal in which one person is present and engaged while the other is hijacked or absent.

In “Nanny and Child” Gonzalès used a similar format – the nanny “present”, the child “absent” “- but intensified the quirk that critics had perceived in” The Railway “.

By this time, Gonzalès had developed a loose and sensual touch very much in the mold of Manet. Like him, she had a flair for dramatic contrasts of light and shadow and a love of black accents. Here, the nanny sits in the center of a lush landscaped park.

What’s annoying, in the first place, is that we can’t see what the nanny is sitting on. Her pale pink dress (the same shade as the dress in Manet’s “Young Lady in 1866”) conceals what would likely be the legs of a chair. Only a touch of blonde paint next to her right elbow hints at what could be the arm of the chair. The effect of this lack of visible support is disconcerting, as if it is crumpled aside and almost floating.

Why, moreover, would a chair be placed exactly there, directly behind an open gate of an ivy-covered fence of which we – or the painter – are on the other side? It is a particular, intermediate place to situate a portrait.

Then there is the child. She is closer to us than the nanny is, which makes her seem more important. But why, given that you can’t see her face? What is she holding in her hand? A piece of cloth? Ivy? A letter?

I can’t think of any obvious answers. But it seems strange to paint a double portrait in which one person looks you straight in the eye while the other is not only turned away, but also in an entirely different headspace. To the curator of the Museum of Fine Arts Marie morton, to whom I asked about “Nanny and the Child”, the very puzzling elements in the painting suggest that Gonzalès adopted Manet’s pictorial strategies; that, like him, she deliberately cultivated ambivalence, creating doubt about how to read her images.

The cruel choices faced by talented young women in 19th-century France took a particularly cruel turn in Gonzalès’ case. In 1883, she died of an embolism, very shortly after giving birth to a son. She was only 34 years old.

A week earlier, Manet himself had died of advanced syphilis. Gonzalès’ husband later married his sister, Jeanne, just as Morisot had married Manet’s brother, Eugene. Strange, how death, art and family can mix. People may hold on to all available strategies as they try to hold on to life and love.

Great works, to the point

A series featuring the favorite works of art critic Sebastian Smee in the permanent collections of the United States. “These are things that touch me. Part of the fun is trying to figure out why.

Photo editing and search by Kelsey Ables. Design and development by Junne Alcantara.


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