This portrait was painted in 1876, the year of the publication of Mallarmé's Après-midi d'un faune, a long poem illustrated by engravings by Manet. The previous year, the painter and writer had already worked together on an illustrated translation of The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe.
Their friendship went back to 1873 and for almost ten years the two men met every day to discuss painting, literature, and the new aesthetic as well as cats and woman's fashion. As he had done with Zola in 1866, Manet undertook this portrait to thank Mallarmé for an article published in an English magazine. Mallarmé was then teaching English at the Condorcet high school. In his article the poet had praised Manet's painting and put him at the head of the Impressionist movement.
He asked him to pose in his studio and chose a small canvas to paint his model in a natural, relaxed attitude. Leaning back on the cushions, the poet has one hand slipped into the pocket of his coat and the other laid on a bundle of papers, perhaps an allusion to the recently published article or to some other writing work. He is smoking one of his big cigars, which gives his hand an elegant gesture.
The treatment of the vigorously brushed canvas is remarkable. It is a good likeness and the poet seems to be alive as if caught by a candid snapshot. Called a "curious wee painting" by the model himself, this refined work stayed in the poet's family until it was bought by the museum in 1928.