12¾ x 9¾ in (32.4 × 24.7 cm
The 13 x 10-inch Manet — two velvety roses amid delicate sprays of lilac — is beautifully rendered and elegant. But, as Christie’s Senior Vice President Jessica Fertig explains, it was more than a demonstration of the painter’s craft. Manet often gave still life paintings of fruit or flowers to friends, and Lilas et roses is one of a series he painted during the final six months of his life. This particular painting was a gift to Ginevra Hureau de Villeneuve, the daughter of his doctor.
On 3 November 1882, Ginevra sent the artist a letter of thanks. ‘I love flowers, and white lilac and roses above all,’ she wrote. ‘In sending me some which will never fade, you have given me the most lively pleasure. I am proud to think that a great artist has taken up his brushes again for me and has gone back to work. I hope he will not stop there and that at the next exhibition we shall see appear some of his highly original and seductive works.’
As Fertig explains, ‘Manet was visited by his friends in his Paris apartment, and would often paint the bouquets they brought. Each one relates to the person who gave it, thus becoming an illustration of their relationship and in some sense immortalizes the giver.’
Manet, still only 51, died the following April, but the flowers in Lilas et roses are not seen as a memento mori. On the contrary, they are viewed as life-affirming: ‘an eloquent testimony to the delights of the material world’, as Fertig puts it. For Manet, flowers were an exemplary motif — 13 years earlier he had said, ‘A painter can say everything he wants with fruits or flowers, or even clouds.’ He paid great attention to them, both in his still lifes and the paintings that caused a stir at the Paris Salon.
‘Manet is well known for his portraits and works that reflect changes in society,’ says Fertig, ‘but flowers weave their way through these scenes, too. His depictions of them are very charged. In Olympia (1865), they have an illicit meaning: they announce the arrival, or even perhaps stand in for, the courtesan’s client. And in A Bar at the Folies Bergère (1882), painted around the same time as Lilas et roses, a vase of flowers very similar to the one Manet gave to Ginevra stands front and centre as a symbol of Manet’s artistic performance.’
...The painting also says a lot about the Rockefellers as collectors. ‘Manet is the father of modern art, the one who started it, one of the groundbreaking artists of his day. The Rockefeller collection holds so many of the extraordinary artists who followed — Monet, Seurat, Gauguin, Picasso — and you can follow the evolution of art in the works,’ Fertig notes. ‘It was also quite rare for a collector to have a Manet. The fact that they had more than one was highly impressive.’