Making an impression

Edouard Manet, Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus

Edouard Manet, Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus - Credit: Tate Images / Tate Images

Norwich Castle Museum is launching another blockbuster exhibition, Homage to Manet. Trevor Heaton looks at what’s in store – and the beautiful painting at the heart of it.

She stares out at us from the canvas, the world she knew already the stuff of history. But there’s much more to Mademoiselle Fanny Claus than that.

This “beautiful and beguiling” 1868 painting helped influence a generation of artists, who would go on to be known to posterity as the Impressionists, and whose work is still loved and admired the world over. The influence of its creator, Edouard Manet, would be an inspiration for generations of artists around the globe.

And now Norfolk exhibition-goers can share in some of that artistic magic when the Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus forms the centrepiece for Homage to Manet, a stunning new exhibition at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery.

The unique exhibition, which runs from January 31 to April 19, will also explore the influence of the Impressionist movement on British artists, and especially how Manet influenced the way women were depicted. It will also feature works by Claude Monet, John Singer Sargent, Laura Knight, and a host of other artists.

The 1868 French painting was bought for the nation in 2012 when the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford raised £7.83 million to save it being sold to a foreign buyer.

When the successful purchase was announced, Stephen Deuchar, director of the Art Fund, said: “Manet’s Mlle Claus is a beautiful, beguiling and exceptionally important painting” – a verdict it is hard to disagree with. The painting is one of only a few in public collections.

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Now Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery has successfully negotiated a loan of the masterpiece and its experts have spent an intensive two years preparing the “thrilling” exhibition around it.

The exhibition is the third blockbuster in quick succession at the historic venue, which smashed attendance records last spring with Roman Empire: Power and People, followed by the even more successful The Wonder of Birds. Now hopes are high that Homage to Manet will top even that.

Manet’s painting was inspired by the sight of people on a balcony during a summer spent in Boulogne-sur-Mer with his family in 1868. The portrait is a first version of Le Balcon (The Balcony) (1868–9) now in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris - one of the key images of the Impressionist movement. Concert violinist Fanny Claus was the closest friend of Manet’s wife Suzanne Leenhoff.

And women are very much at the heart of the Castle exhibition, which will also look at how the French artist paved the way for professional female artists of the 20th century.

Focusing on the period from 1860 to 1914, Homage to Manet will feature around 60 works, including oils, prints and drawings on loan from national collections such as the Tate, the British Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, as well as regional and private collections. They will include Claude Monet’s Woman Seated on a Bench (c1874), which has been loaned by the Tate London.

The exhibition’s title has been inspired by the name of a 1909 painting by Sir William Orpen, which will also be on display.

Dr John Davies, chief curator, says: “This is indeed a coup for us to have secured the loan of Manet’s beautiful and important painting of Mlle Claus for the people of Norfolk.”

The exhibition will be accompanied by a busy programme of events. Its principal sponsors are Birketts Solicitors, and it will also be supported by our sister newspaper the Eastern Daily Press and the East Anglia Art Fund.

So what became of Fanny Claus, the sitter for Manet’s portrait? Tragically, her life was to be cut short – as was the Imperial French society she was part of.

For Napoleon III’s great experiment was to last only a couple more years, its imperial pomp savagely cut down under the relentless cannons of the Prussian army.

And as for Mademoiselle Claus, her life lasted only a little longer. Soon after this painting was made she married the artist Pierre Prins, another friend of Manet’s, but died of tuberculosis eight years later. She was just 30.

But thanks to Manet she lives on, her immortality assured through the deft brushstrokes of an artistic genius.

Homage to Manet runs at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery from January 31 to April 19. And see over for how you can join EDP Norfolk magazine for a very special viewing of this stunning exhibition.

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