Incapacitated by severe rheumatism, Manet left Paris in the summer of 1880 for the neighboring suburb of Bellevue, renowned for its agreeable villas and for its waters.' He had first attended the hydropathic clinic there in September 1879, and in June 1880 rented a villa on the route des Gardes from the opera singer Emilie Ambre, “the neighboring prima donna and ‘chatelaine,” whose portrait he had started in September 1879 and would finish during this second, protracted stay. Manet and his family remained at Bellevue until the beginning of November 1880, and in spite of an arduous regime of showers and massages—and Manet’s marked distaste for country life — the stay was among the most productive of his last years.
Manet confined his painting in these months to open-air studies made in the garden of his rented villa. In a letter to the engraver Henri Guérard, husband of his pupil Eva Gonzales, he once complained that his day’s work had been interrupted by storm: “Therefore we had to put away the easels.” Nor is it clear that such a sustained period of painting in plein air entirely suited him. Toward the end of his time at Bellevue he wrote to Zola: “The Bellevue air has done me a world of good... But, alas! Naturalist painting is more in disfavour that ever.”
Indeed, Mme Manet at Bellevue exemplifies Manet’s deep-seated ambivalence toward the aims and techniques of the Impressionist school he was widely credited to have fostered. Seated on a bentwood rocking chair, her hands resting on her lap, Suzanne Manets gaze is hidden under the large brim of a straw hat and her face is covered by its veil. The paint is applied very freely: over the thin, gray-cream ground that makes up her dress, patches of white, gray, and blue are laid on in crisscross strokes to suggest the flickering of light over her ample form. By contrast, the foliage in the background is rendered in dense, oily patches of greens of varying intensity, and the serpentine line of the rocking chair is age of bravura impasto. Manet’s touch changes again in the more delicate handling of Suzanne’ face and hat: strokes of blue, peach, and white create the edge of the brim of her hat, and the flesh tones darken to model her chin and cheek. He is at pains to record certain effects of light: Suzanne's hands, in direct sunlight, appear almost orange compared to the plum-flesh tones of her protected face. Equally, there are touches of red in the background—against the edge of the garden chair, in the foliage above Suzanne’s hat—to add vibration to the greens.
But in themselves the ambient effects of sunlight and the play of shadows are not of overwhelming interest to Manet. Nor are the particulars of this suburban site. The thick green bushes with the sunlight upon them are merely background—freely handled, but synoptic, and with few concessions to having been directly observed. In this the portrait resembles Manet’s Reading L'Illustré , painted the previous year: the general flatness of the composition and the disjuncture between sitter and setting are common to both works.
Yet, if Manet’s handling is undeniably Impressionist, he arrived at the statuesque and immobile presence of his wife through several stages. Suzanne’ profile first appears as a sketch illustrating Manet’ letter to Henri Guérard.” The pose is repeated, almost identically, in a black wash drawing on graph paper, while a third drawing, in ink , has Suzanne’ face turned directly to the right, the pose she assumes in the finished painting” Lastly, an unfinished oil sketch for the painting, which was photographed in 1883 and has subsequently disappeared, demonstrates how Manet worked out this composition, building up the elements from the left: only Suzanne's hat and the back of her chair are visible, and her features are not yet described.” Given the notorious slowness and deliberation with which Manet worked, this succession of preparatory works is not surprising. It is also worth noting that Manet adjusted the profile in the finished painting by letting the veil cover Suzanne's face; in all of the drawings the veil is lifted and her profile is more directly observed. The lowering of the veil deepens the sense of his sitter’s impenetrability.
At the same time that Manet worked on the portrait of Suzanne, he painted that of his mother, Eugénie-Désirée Manet (1811-1885), sitting in the same garden, facing left and concentrating on the needlework she holds in her hand. Preparatory drawings for this appear juxtaposed with those of Suzanne in two of the sheets mentioned above, and the final portrait of his mother, which Duret called an “étude,” while even freer than that of Suzanne, might well be considered a pendant to it. The two paintings have almost the same dimensions, and the compositions respond to one another in a general way. The pairing nicely alludes to the cordial relations between the two women, who together comfortably maintained Manet’s impeccably respectable household on the rue Saint-Pétersbourg.
Mme Manet at Bellevue would be Manet last painting of his wife, who had already appeared in at least eleven of his oils. Suzanne Leenhoff (1830-1906), born in Delft, was the daughter of an organist and chapel master and was herself an accomplished pianist. She and Manet married in October 1863, although their liaison had begun some thirteen years earlier. It is generally accepted that Léon Koella Leenhoff, born to Suzanne in January 1852, was Manet’ son; in polite society he was known as her brother. How Suzanne Leenhoff and Edouard Manet first met is still open to speculation; the dictum that she gave Manet piano lessons is questionable, since Manet at eighteen was old to be taking instruction of this sort. Despite such ambiguities, Suzanne was warmly accepted by Manet’ family (after the death of his father in September 1862) and by his literary and artistic friends. “It would appear that his wife is beautiful, very fine, and a great musician,” wrote Baudelaire on the occasion of Manet’s sudden wedding in October 1863." Suzanne visited the dying Baudelaire and played Wagner to him; she corresponded with Zola (to whom she was devoted) and Mallarmé; and after Manet's death in 1883 she transformed their house at Gennevilliers.
Comparison of this painting with a photograph of Suzanne illustrates the degree of simplification in Manet’ last portrait of her. Her broad features, so lovingly rendered the year before in Mme Manet in the Conservatory, are now entirely suppressed. Her sensual mouth and frozen profile suggest an almost sphinx like inscrutability, while her elegant hands are reduced to a few hasty strokes of vermilion. Just as the precise nature of his relationship with Suzanne was carefully masked during his lifetime, Manet seems intent upon maintaining a certain distance in this gentle yet enigmatic portrait of his wife.