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Eva Gonzalès: Pupil, Muse, Artist – Catherine Pell

A portrait of a white adult woman wearing a grey dress, looking towards the painter.

A small but important work in the collection of the Leeds Castle Charitable Foundation is a pastel portrait, created by the French artist Eva Gonzalès.  Born in Paris in 1849, Gonzalès went on to become one of the great female artists of the 19th century and this portrait may go some way to explaining why.

Dated to 1873/74, the pastel depicts a highly fashionable and mysterious Parisian lady in a dark interior.  From the picture’s title and the inclusion of a suitcase, we understand that her departure from this dimly lit space is imminent.  She, like the artist herself, stands on the cusp of moving between spheres.

Operating between the private and public spheres was problematic for women in the 19th century, particularly for female artists like Gonzalès.  By looking in more detail at Gonzalès’ body of work at this time, we can contrast Le Depart with her boldest work created in the same year, 1874, which tackled an ambitious subject of modern Parisian life: the theatre box.  We can appreciate how deftly she crossed realms through her work and resisted conformity with gender or artistic groups, navigating the Parisian art world and carving out a niche for herself and her work during this period.

Same but different

Impressionism was the dominant art movement of the 1870s and 1880s when Gonzalès was active.  It championed subjects from modern life and prioritised transitory effects over all else, including form, detail and clear narrative.

Born into a wealthy family, Gonzalès had access to private art tutorage, which led to her meeting the famous artist Edouard Manet when she was only 21 years old.  By this time, Manet was an established artist affiliated with the Impressionists, although he, like Gonzales, never formally exhibited with them.  Manet and Gonzalès developed a close working relationship and friendship, which lasted until the end of their lives (they died only weeks apart in 1883).

It was a huge opportunity for Gonzalès to have a mentor such as Manet, however, this – and his famous portrait of her – has undermined her own output.  Curators today agree that Gonzalès’ achievements have been widely overlooked, in part because of her being categorised as Manet’s pupil and muse.  More recent scholarly work prefers not to simply label her in relation to Manet but to look at her body of work in its own right.[1]

Although Gonzalès was in the minority in relation to the Impressionists, she shared an affinity with them.  As a female artist, she didn’t have access to the great outdoors – a favoured subject of Impressionists like Claude Monet and Pierre-Augustus Renoir – and instead turned primarily to domestic settings and subjects for her art (those with which she was most familiar and could access most freely).  Gonzalès also chose a media suited to capturing the effects associated with Impressionism (changing light and quickly moving subjects): pastel.

One of the most dominant art forms of the 18th-century Rococo movement, pastel was roundly praised for the life like quality it created and favoured years later by Gonzalès.  Pastel was ideal for an artist working in the Impressionist spirit, capturing fleeting effects of light and movement.  It was in this media that for the first time the roles between Gonzalès and Manet were reversed, and she taught her master a thing or two, including the best materials to use.[2]  Gonzalès adapted the media to suit the speed and spontaneity of modern life subjects.  As we shall go on to see, however, the subjects available to female artists inspired by Impressionism and influencing its direction, were severely limited in the mid-late 19thcentury.

Crossing the divide

Art education for women in the 19th century was extremely restricted: women did not have access to schools and life study as their male counterparts did.  Instead, moral and social constructs put women firmly in the domestic sphere, with a primary care-giving role of wife and mother.  The public sphere was not readily open to burgeoning artists like Gonzalès and so they had to adapt.

Gonzalès came from a wealthy family, which facilitated her entry into artist studios where she could learn directly from established male artists.  Opportunities, inaccessible to many of her female contemporaries, were hers for the taking.  As a young artist, she received tutorage, expanded her professional network and developed her own style.  Even so, compromises had to be made and consequently a new subject worthy of art emerged.

In place of outdoor landscapes – Impressionists loved to capture the outdoors –Gonzalès focused on her world and the worlds of women in the 19th century, the domestic interior.  Instead of bar scenes and models, her subjects were family members who served as ready and patient models for preparatory studies and finished pictures.  Although there were exceptions to this, female artists in the 19th-century predominantly depicted the realms they knew best.

The biggest exception for Gonzalès was Une Loge, her most famous work and a subject matter famously tackled by leading male Impressionists of the day.[3]

A painting of a adult man and adult woman. They are both wearing formal clothes. They appear to be at the theatre.
Une loge aux Italiens, Eva Gonzalès, oil painting, 1874

Completed in 1874 around the same time as Le Depart, Un Loge is an example of Gonzalès dramatically leaving the private sphere and entering the public arena.  It is significant that a pastel created by Gonzalès of a domestic scene with a woman seemingly accepting her situation but looking to ‘depart’ was created in the same year as an ambitious oil painting of an animated, active woman in the public sphere.  I view this as a conscious decision made by Gonzalès to cross the divide between the two spheres, with the artist keen to escape the confines of Le Depart for something more ambitious and seeking liberation through her art.

It is remarkable that Gonzalès created two such different works in the same year, at time when women faced such obstacles to access in the art world.  Can Le Depart therefore be seen as Gonzalès breaking free of the restraints placed on women artists at this time?  Comparing the two works with all their differences, it is noticeable that in both pictures women hold the gaze of the viewer and confront them unapologetically, almost daringly.

Breaking the mould

Gonzalès’ younger sister Jeanne features as a model in many of her pictures, including as the protagonist in Un Loge, and there is a suggestion that the subject of Le Depart could also be Jeanne.  What we can say for certain is that the model’s dress in Le Depart is distinctive and roots the picture firmly in the 1870s.

‘1870s fashion placed an emphasis on the back of the skirt, with … fabric draped into bustles and an abundance of flounces and ruching’.[4]  A tight corset was worn together with stiff crinoline fixed underneath to give the full shape to the skirt.  Altogether this was quite a contraption, reinforcing the impression created in Le Depart of constriction and restraint.

Eva Gonzalès, Le Gouter, oil painting, 1873/4

This outfit was recycled by Gonzalès, including in the homely scene depicted in Le Gouter, which was created around the same time as Le Depart.  Although it was not unusual for artists to recycle props and repeat models as Gonzalès did, it does reinforce the limitations she faced as an artist – she did not have unfettered access to the models and costumes, as well as to the spaces, the male Impressionists did.

Despite, or indeed, because of these limitations, the works created by Eva Gonzalès in the 1870s deserve renewed appreciation today for their skill, observation and storytelling, just as Gonzalès deserves recognition as an artist in her own right.





Catherine Pell is the Curator of Interiors & Collections at Leeds Castle.  Catherine has developed a special interest in 20th-century social history, design & collecting after previously receiving an MA focusing on art & literature of the 18th & 19th centuries.  A committed heritage professional, Catherine completed a range of diverse projects at the National Portrait Gallery, Dulwich Picture Gallery, Museum of London & English Heritage before developing & delivering an ambitious Heritage Lottery Fund project at Whitehall Historic House.  With responsibility for the display & interpretation of collections at Leeds Castle, Catherine is enthusiastic about contemporary curating, audience engagement & development.

[1] Two exhibitions featuring or focusing on Gonzalès are scheduled for 2024 

[2] Discover Manet & Eva Gonzalès (Yale University Press, 2022), p.74

[3] Notably Pierre-Auguste Renoir in the same year, 1874.