My favourite painting: brook & black

'This portrait presents a gap, something unresolved.'

Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus, 1868, by Edouard Manet (1832–83), 43½in by 27½in, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Tiffany Black and Leora Brook say:
This portrait presents a gap, something unresolved. On being invited by the Ashmolean to make a work in response to it, our research led us to Sophie Prins-Gapinski, a painter living in Paris today, the great-great-grand-daughter of Fanny Claus. She read us the words written by her great-grandfather on seeing the portrait of his recently deceased mother in Manet’s studio. We made a sculpture and video installation that reflected on the gap between the physical and digital world, between painting and video, and tried to negotiate between the Paris of Baudelaire’s flâneur and the events of November 2015—between the past and the present.

brook & black is an arts partnership whose commissioned work includes installations for the Wallace Collection, the Toulouse Lautrec Museum and the Ashmolean Museum

John McEwen comments on Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus:
This preparatory oil sketch for a figure in Manet’s famous group portrait The Balcony (Musée d’Orsay, Paris) was saved for the nation in 2012 after a public appeal. The painting had been sold to a foreign buyer for £28.35 million. Judged a perfect complement to the Ashmolean’s Manets, it was placed under a temporary export bar by Culture Minister Ed Vaizey, son of the art critic Marina (Lady) Vaizey.

As a private-treaty sale, it was discounted to £7.83 million, 27% of its market value. With four weeks until the expiry date, £595,000 had still to be raised. ‘This is one of the most important pictures of the 19th century, which has been in this country since its sale following the artist’s death,’ implored the Ashmolean’s then Director, Dr Christopher Brown. ‘The picture’s significance is reflected in its history: it was hugely admired and then bought by another great artist, John Singer Sargent, in 1884. Its purchase would, at a stroke, transform the Ashmolean’s representation of impressionist painting.’

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Grants from the heritage Lottery Fund and The Art Fund provided the bulk of the asking price, but there were also donations from trusts, foundations and private individuals.

In The Balcony, Fanny Claus stands and is replaced as the seated figure by the painter Berthe Morisot, Manet’s sister-in-law. Fanny was the closest friend of Manet’s wife and a professional musician, a rarity then for a woman. As a violin and viola player, she was a founding member of the first professional female string quartet. she died from tuberculosis, aged 30, eight years after this portrait was painted.