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The Pink Dress (Albertie-Marguerite Carré, later Madame Ferdinand-Henri Himmes, 1854–1935), 1870
The pink dress is among the two dozen or so paintings made by Berthe Morisot before her thirtieth birthday to have survived: Mallarmés “amicable Medusa” is thought to have destroyed the greater part of her early work in dissatisfaction and frustration. The remnants of Morisot’s signature, in red, at the lower right of the canvas, suggest that this was one of the rare paintings she considered acceptable for presentation to the sitter.
Fortunately, the circumstances in which The Pink Dress was painted are documented to a remarkable degree through the testimony of Jacques-Emile Blanche (1861-1942), society portraitist, friend of the Impressionists, and avid collector of the new painting. Of Blanche’s many recollections of his childhood in Passy, that elegant section to the west of Paris that is a continuation of the sixteenth arrondissement, his meetings with Berthe Morisot and her set are among the most vivid. He particularly eloquent on the attractive circle of well-educated, upper middle-class young women who congregated at the home of Jean-Baptiste and Francoise Léonarde Carré at the Villa Fodor, a residence on rue Jean-Bologne built in 1856 by the celebrated French soprano Josephine Fodor-Mainveille, and, according to Blanche, the setting for The Pink Dress. Passy society, as opposed to Parisian society, was dominated by families like the Morisots and the Carrés, and is the vital context for Morisot’s early work.
Although written at the age of sixty, Blanche’s recollections are full of pertinent details concerning The Pink Dress, and these give his somewhat Proustian efforts the quality of an eyewitness account. In an article dedicated to Julie Manet, Eugene Manet and Morisots only child, he wrote: “I met Mlle Berthe at the Villa Fodor many times: I was meant to be playing games there, but it was really your mother that I went to see, for even then, paint brushes and colours interested me a great deal more than badminton and croquet. One day, she painted before my eyes a charming portrait of Mlle Marguerite in a light pink dress; indeed, the entire canvas was light. Here Berthe Morisot was fully herself, already eliminating from nature both shadows and half-tones.
Marguerite Carré he remembered as a rather beleaguered sitter, dressed “in the manner of Berthe Morisot,” seated on the sofa “straight as a tent peg,” reminding those who watched Morisot paint of a fashionable doll. The portrait was completed over several sessions, since Morisot “constantly changed her mind and painted over what she had done once the session was at an end, and Mlle Marguerite was obliged to pose for months at a time, without the sketch seeming to advance any further.”
The Pink Dress has indeed retained traces of the struggle for form and idiom to which Blanche alluded, recording, almost in spite of itself, the artist's hesitations and changes of mind. In a bold, frontal pose, the young Marguerite Carré sits rather uncomfortably on a small sofa with white slip covers, her right hand nervously fingering the fabric of her pink dress. Although not immediately apparent, her light brown hair falls from behind her head—a domestic Olympia!—and she wears a discreet black net over one side of her chignon. On a small round table behind her are ornaments of a Japanese flavour: a painted fan and a decorated cachepot with a large rubber plant. Gazing directly at the spectator, Marguerite rests her left hand on a large bolster of gold and white, her left arm foreshortened in a pose that is daring, if not altogether successful. There is some further disjunction in the angle of the sofa, set at a slight oblique both to the background and the table even though Marguerite Carré’ frontal posture seems to demand a more resolutely parallel placement.
In The Pink Dress Morisots handling is at once aggressive and controlled, her “fury and nonchalance” held in check by her determination to give plasticity and vigour to the mundane objects she describes.” Much of the composition bears the marks of scraping and repainting, but nowhere is this as obsessive as in the background, where practically every element has been altered or reformulated. The clusters of bright red paint that bloom eerily from beneath the leaves of the rubber plant indicate that she changed her mind more than once about the sort of potted plant she wanted: rubber plant or geranium. Between the cachepot and the Japanese fan is the spectral outline of a perfume vial or decanter, an ornament she finally rejected. It is almost impossible to guess what Morisot may have painted in the background to the right of Mlle Carré, for this area has the feel of a battleground, so extensive is the scraping and repainting. It seems that even after she came to the felicitous decision to leave the background empty—thereby detracting as little attention as possible from Marguerite—Morisot hesitated in her choice of tone. After first painting over in black, she effaced the color and repainted in brown; the textured penumbra that this process created serves well to emphasize the luminosity of the sitter and her dress.
The changes made in painting Marguerite Carré herself were less radical, but remain visible nonetheless. The sitter’s hands and sleeves presented considerable difficulty and were moved more than once. Marguerite’ right arm was initially placed closer to the edge of the sofa, and patches of pink paint, formerly the sleeve of her dress, are to be seen quite clearly through the grays and whites of the slip covers. That so much of the dark background tone is visible in this section suggests that the shape of the sofa itself was also adjusted.
Blanche’s discussion of Morisot’s painting at the Villa Fodor mentions the changes that are found in The Pink Dress almost point for point, and itis this concordance that lends such weight to his testimony; Blanche remembered Margucrite and her elder sister Valentine as among Morisot’ earliest models, “with their full heads of light hair in lace netting” and in dresses “with the waistline just below the breast and with a fluted frill open in the shape of a heart.” Over their collars they attached a “band of velvet that trailed down the back,” and the effect was captivating: “Theirs was a look that said, ‘Follow me, young man’ and was one very much in keeping with the style of the Villa Fodor.
Blanche could almost be describing Marguerite Carré as she is portrayed in The Pink Dress, and his discussion of the use Morisot made of accessories in her portraits is equally compelling. The artist favoured “cachepots made of Gien earthenware, in which were placed rubber plants with large leaves’; she liked “comfortable squat armchairs and white slip covers, which she almost always used to hide the ugly rosewood furniture’—features that are much in evidence in this portrait.”
But it is his recollection of Morisot at work on The Pink Dress that has unexpected documentary value. The artist was surrounded by the indulgent and amused matrons of Passy, her own mother included, who teased her outrageously as the painting took on form: “Wherever did you get such ideas? To put a lilac piano in a portrait, to include muslin curtains, and to paint a rubber plant instead of a bouquet of flowers!”
The exclamations of Morisot’s audience are precious: We know that the artist hesitated before painting the rubber plant in its fashionable holder, and that she may have been persuaded to paint a more orthodox bouquet, which she then promptly eliminated. The passage also offers a clue as to what else may have once appeared in the background, for it is not altogether impossible to imagine in the shapes behind the sofa on the right the contours of an upright piano, or even of muslin curtains, both elements wisely removed on one of the many reworkings that the composition under- went.
Blanche was in no doubt as to the identity of the Dress, and he had good reason to remember Marguerite Carré, since it was she who had first introduced him at age seven to Berthe Morisot in 1867. Later writers have confused the issue in mistaking the sitter for LouiseValentine Carré, Marguerite’ elder sister, who briefly caught Manet’ attention in 1870 and posed for the seated female figure in his first plein-air painting, In the Garden, until prevented from returning by her appalled mother: Albertie-Marguerite Carré was born in Paris on February 16, 1854, and was thus thirteen years Morisot’s junior. On November 10, 1897, at the age of forty-five, she married Ferdinand-Henri Himmes (1852-1917), sous-chef in the Ministry of Finance, and previously the husband of her sister, Louise-Valentine, who had died in August 1896. In October dispensation for the already related couple to marry had been requested from the French government. They visited Julie Manet two weeks before their wedding, just after such permission had been granted: “How strange life is,” recorded Julie in her diary, “For some time now everyone thought Mlle Carré would remain a spinster for the rest of her days. Her sister dies and life suddenly begins for her; for the first time in her life she considers herself to be somebody, It is almost as if the two sisters could not live at the same time.”
Part of the confusion concerning the identity of the sitter stems from the fact that both sisters shared the same husband, and thus the same surname. The accuracy of Blanche’s memory is confirmed by the recollections of a living descendant of the Morisot household, Julie Manet’ cousin, Mme Agathe RouartValéry, who can remember Marguerite Himmess visits when she was a young girl. By then, Marguerite’ “round, well-powdered cheeks and fine features” were all that remained to evoke Moriso’s portrait of her. On one such occasion, Mme Himmes unexpectedly encountered the master of the household, the great symbolist poet Paul Valéry, and was so intimidated that she hardly uttered a word. Still living in Passy, Marguerite died childless, at the age of seventy-nine, on Janary 3), 1935, her husband having predeceased her by some eighteen years on August 31, 1917. Valentine and Marguerite buried alongside Ferdinand Himmes in the cemetery of Passy.
Tracing Marguerite Carré’ date of birth and the meager details of her life is of great help in assigning a date to the painting itself. This was something Blanche did not do, mentioning only that he had first been introduced to Morisot in 1867 and that his childhood reminiscences were confined to the Second Empire, which came to a close in September 1870. Certainly, Morisot presents us with a rather shy, self-conscious sitter, full of face and rather uneasy under the artist's penetrating gaze. Although elaborately dressed, Marguerite Carré seems to be on the threshold of early womanhood, but she is clearly still quite young.
In trying to arrive at a date for The Pink Dress, which has been customarily dated to 1873, the influence of Morisot’s mentor and teacher, Edouard Manet, is also of the greatest significance. Most recently the portrait has been ingeniously related to Reading , Manet’s celebrated portrait of his wife Suzanne, which clearly provided Morisot with a prototype for her own composition. The position of Marguerite Carré on the sofa derives from Suzanne reclining as she listens to her son read to her, although Morisot’ sitter has little of Suzanne's composure. Curiously, Morisot lavished as much care on Marguerite’s hands, finely modelled, with elegant, tapering fingers, as Manet had taken with those of his pianist wife. So much indebted to Manet’s Reading is this portrait that it has been called, somewhat dismissively, “a simple exercise,” and dated to late 1868: a time when Morisot would have had ample opportunity to study the painting at her leisure seated figure in Manet’s Balcony (Musée d'Orsay, Paris). Attractive as this hypothesis is, it is open to revision on many counts. First, Reading was not necessarily completed by the latter part of 1868. It is a painting on which Manet may have worked over a period of eight years, with parts of the painting executed in the early 1870s. In a letter of March 1869, Berthe Morisot’s mother noted with some asperity that Manet had finally painted his wife—“I think it was high time’—which could suggest that Reading was not completed, even in its initial for , until early that year. And Morisot would have another chance to gaze at this painting, either at Manet’s studio on the rue Guyot or at his family house, during her second protracted modeling session for him, in 1870, when he painted his celebrated portrait of her, Repose (Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence), in the early summer of that year.
A date of c. 1870 for The Pink Dress is satisfying for other reasons. Whereas it is difficult to see Marguerite Carréasa fourteen year old (one thinks of Degas’s bronze dancer of the same age), it is just possible to reconcile Morisot’s image of burgeoning womanhood with a girl who had reached her sixteenth year. The Pink Dress is also very close in every aspect of its composition to the enigmatic Two Seated Women (The Sisters), which is dated between 1869 and 1875. This is another portrait that bears the imprint of the Villa Fodor: the polka dot dresses, the brightly patterned sofa, the black chokers are all elements evoked in Blanche’s recollection.
While the more aggressive handling in The Pink Dress owes some- thing to the informal manner of another social intimate, Alfred Stevens, the solidity of modeling, the assured and insistent application of paint, and the rapt frontal gaze are features shared by Morisot's early work the Portrait of Jeanne-Marie (fig. 46), dated to 1871 The Pink Dress, with its lingering indebtedness to Manet, may well be the earliest of this related group and should be dated to around 1870.
Marguerite Carré would sit for Morisot twice more. She was the subject of a pastel portrait, now lost, that Eugene Manet had encouraged his wife to exhibit at the Dudley Gallery in London in October1875. She appears again as the svelte and elegant young woman in the Young Woman in a Ballgown, dated to 1873, which Julie Manet admired at the first Morisot retrospective at Durand-Ruel’s gallery in March 1896.
If previous discussion of The Pink Dress has suffered from a case of mistaken identity, there has been similar confusion over the provenance of this painting. Contrary to what has been repeated until very recently, Morisot’s portrait of Mlle Carré did not appear in the Sixth Impressionist Exhibition of 1881. Although the artist's submissions there included a Young Woman in Pink, the single detailed discussion of this painting, Nina de Villar’s review in Le Courrier du Soir, disqualifies it as The Pink Dress. Apart from the improbability of Morisot exhibiting a work some ten years old at such a progressive salon, the review praised Morisot’s portrait of a “woman whose eyes are as blue as the earrings that adorn her charming ears." Not only are Marguerite’s eyes blue gray, but she does not wear earrings. Similarly, it is impossible to confirm that The Pink Dress is the same work as Portrait of Mme H. that appeared in two important early retrospectives of Morisot’s work: Durand-Ruel’s exhibition of 1g02, and Bernheim-Jeune’s of 1919. The charming Portrait of Mme Hubbard, 1874 (The Ordrupgaard Collection, Copenhagen) and the earlier, more severe Portrait of Mme Heude, c. 1870 (private collection) are equal contenders with Mme Himmes for these honors. After leaving Mme Himmess possession, The Pink Dress is firmly documented only in the prestigious collection of the Argentine Antonio Santamarina, in 1933. Santamarina had formed his impressive collection of Impressionist paintings between 1895 and 1930, and it thus seems that Marguerite Carré-Himmes would have parted with Morisot’s portrait before she died in 1935.
|Institution||The Metropolitan Museum of Art|
|Medium||Oil on canvas|
54.6 x 67.3 cm