In 1879 Édouard Manet rented a studio from the Swedish painter Georg von Rosen in Paris, from where he had access to a winter garden. Filled with palm trees and exotic plants, such gardens were the latest rage and allowed visitors to relax and engage in quiet conversations. In short, they were the perfect setting for Parisian elegance and la vie moderne.Manet painted one of his most famous pictures here, In the Winter Garden,with Monsieur and Madame Guillemet as his models. The painting was shown at the Salon the same year, and was the first of his pictures to be acquired by a museum, namely Berlin’s Nationalgalerie in 1896.
Manet used the occasion to simultaneously paint a picture that was not intended for sale: Mme Manet in the Conservatory. It was meant to be a gift to the sitter, his Dutch-born spouse Suzanne. They had been a couple since the early 1850s, and she often sat for him. She had by now become a somewhat large, plump, and ruddy wife, very much unlike the refined Parisian Mme Guillemet. But it is with great affection that Manet depicts his wife’s features as she sits in her finery, her hands resting in her lap.
Édouard Manet died in 1893, and two years later Suzanne Manet was compelled to sell the picture for financial reasons. The picture changed hands several times before it was offered to the National Gallery in 1918 by a private collector in Paris. Every museum dreamt of having a representative Manet in its collection, but his pictures were priced very high – far higher than Cézanne, for example – and entirely out of reach for the National Gallery, given its acquisition budget. The Friends of the National Gallery therefore bought the picture and donated it to the museum.
Text: Nils Messel
From "Highlights. Art from Antiquity to 1945", Nasjonalmuseet 2014, ISBN 978-82-8154-088-0