Although a close associate of the impressionists who shared their dedication to the portrayal of modern life, Eva Gonzalès never participated in their group exhibitions. Born into an artistic family—her father was a well-known writer and her mother an accomplished musician—Gonzalès discovered her vocation at an early age. In 1865, the sixteen-year-old Gonzalès began her formal studies under Charles Chaplin, a society painter who ran a well-known art studio for women. She remained under his tutelage for two years.
In February 1869, Gonzalès was introduced to Edouard Manet. He painted her portrait and she soon became his student, the only one that Manet ever acknowledged. Manet’s influence was profound. Like her mentor, Gonzalès revealed a marked preference for subjects drawn from modern life, but it is in her technique with its emphasis upon overall tonal relationships and the privileging of form over detail that Manet’s influence is truly felt. This is particularly apparent in early works such as The Little Soldier (Musée Gaston Rapin, Villeneuve-sur-Lot), the painting with which she made her debut at the Salon of 1870.
Nanny and Child is perhaps Gonzalès’ most accomplished work. Executed at Dieppe, a locale Gonzalès frequented throughout the 1870s, this painting is a subtle, yet unmistakable homage to Manet’s great painting The Railway (1956.10.1). Gonzalès used the same compelling interplay of figures: the seated nanny who gazes out at the viewer and a young charge who grasps the bars of a fence, her body turned away and her features shown in lost profile. As in Manet’s painting, the brushwork here is lush, the forms vigorously drawn and detail minimized, the palette restrained and low key.
Most striking, however, are the ways in which Gonzalès consciously diverged from Manet’s model. Whereas Manet’s work feels somewhat claustrophobic, with figures trapped between the shallow foreground and the black metal bars of the fence behind them, Gonzalès’ painting delights in open space. Despite the summary depiction of the garden, she reveals a sensitivity to the play of sunlight as it peeks through the trees and dapples the ground, suggesting that she may have painted the work at least in part out of doors. Consequently, the figures seem to inhabit a landscape, rather than pose against a backdrop. Nanny and Child is not a mere imitation of Manet’s painting, but a thoughtful and highly original response to the subject, reimagined and transformed into something entirely new and undeniably her own.
This painting was first exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1878, where it was shown under the title Miss et bébé. Contemporary audiences would have easily recognized the allusion to the nanny’s English nationality, a sign of wealth and prestige in a class-conscious society. Critical response to the work was mixed. While the writer Eugène Véron considered the little girl pretty and the overall composition satisfying, he found the modeling of the nanny lacking and likened her to a Japanese print, which was viewed as negative at the time. The critic Castagnary was more appreciative, however, admiring Gonzalès’ ability to capture nature in rapid strokes. Gonzalès’ career was brief. She died during childbirth in 1883 at the age of thirty-four, just six days after the death of her mentor Manet. Gonzalès left behind a modest oeuvre of paintings and pastels; eighty-eight of them, including Nanny and Child, were shown in a posthumous retrospective held at the Salons de la Vie Moderne.
NotesEugène Véron, "Le Salon de Paris, scènes de la vie contemporaine," L’Art, 14 (1878), 161–162.Castagnary, Salons (1857–1879), vol. 2 (Paris, 1892), 350.