During the 1870s Manet's health began to fail and the couple decided to spend the summer of 1880 at a rented villa in Bellevue, a suburb of Paris, where Manet had been advised to take a treatment. This is the last painting he did of his wife, and we see her seated in the villa’s garden. Although the painting’s brushwork looks spontaneous and rapidly executed, Manet prepared carefully before embarking on the portrait. We know that he made two drawings and a sketch in oils before the final painting.
Perhaps the lack of precise detail and the sense of hurry that we get from the painting are related to an unconscious urge to work quickly, prompted by a deeper knowledge that his time might be limited. Manet had had a long struggle for acceptance but the next Spring the Salon awarded him a medal for a painting of Henri Rochefort. The following autumn he was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. So we might say that his interlude at Bellevue was followed by long overdue recognition, after years of refusal and ridicule from the selection committees of various salons and art institutions.
However, the cure did not effect any lasting improvement in his health, and Manet died in April 1883. Ironically, less than a year after his death, the Ecole Des Beaux-Arts organised a posthumous exhibition of his work. It was the beginning of the recognition of Manet as the one of the founding fathers of the revolution in art that led to modernism. Manet was a sociable artist and was friendly with Degas, Morisot and Monet. He declined their invitations to exhibit jointly with them but shared many of their artistic interests. Among these were painting in plein-air. This meant leaving the comfort of the studio and moving your easel outside, to paint nature while being in nature. Previously, artists had often made sketches outside but produced the finished works in the studio.
This portrait of Madame Manet accords with the plein air philosophy – she is painted in the garden of the villa at Bellevue. Though in common with other women of her time, she has taken care to protect herself, and particularly her face, by wearing a straw hat with a gauzy scarf draped around it, that falls over her face as a veil. She is also holding a parasol, for further protection against the sun. The picture is currently owned by the Met in New York.