The Lady with Fans - Nina de Callias, Manet's model
Lying nonchalantly on a sofa, Woman with Fans, by Edouard Manet stares with curiosity and a hint of irony at the passing visitor. Dressed in oriental style (Algerian blouse and oriental slippers), posing against a background of Japanese screens, she looks just like the composite “figure of fantasy" which Manet intended, denying that this was a portrait. Again according to Manet, he found the image of this lady in the small literary revue of the time, the Revue du Monde Nouveau. Here, she poses as a “Parisian lady", the title of the engraving : in a black velvet dress enhanced with a strawberry, and wearing a hat, she is epitome of elegance. Her figure is slim, as is her face which assumes a pensive expression. A sonnet dedicated to Manet by Charles Cros, the director of the review, recounts the sitting without naming the model.
The painting was not exhibited in Manet’s lifetime; he kept it in his studio out of sight. In the 1884 retrospective dedicated to the artist one year after his death, the work was presented with the titleWoman with Fans. When the contents of his studio were sold that same year, she was bought by one of his favourite models, his sister in law, the painter Berthe Morisot. Her daughter donated it to the national museums in 1930. Since that time, Woman with Fans has been on public display.
But who was this woman, first a courtesan, then a Parisian lady, who, in the first biography of Manet in 1884, was described as “a very distinguished musician, who combined her successes as pianist and composer with her success as a poet"?
The exhibition devoted to her by the Musée d’Orsay attempts to answer this question by retracing the story of her life: a talented woman, an excellent pianist and occasional poet, whose salon was one of the liveliest meeting places of the literary and artistic avant-garde of her time; also an independent woman who wished to live out her fantasies, outside the social constraints of the time, and who paid a heavy price for this choice.
After the first room where Manet’s paintingWoman with Fans, is the centrepiece, surrounded by other contemporary portraits of women painted in the same pose, the exhibition follows the life of Nina de Callias (1843-1884), from a carefree, society girl to madness and death.
Through the various salons she hosted, a whole section of literary and artistic life at the end of the Second Empire and the beginning of the Third Republic is revealed to us. : soon separated from her husband, an unstable journalist whom she married for love (1864-1868), she entertained in her apartment in the rue Chaptal, groups of young poets in search of new forms of expression, known collectively as The Parnassians, a group in which she herself was active (1869).
Republican journalists also flocked there. Her salon thus became the meeting place of a progressive movement in politics as well as in poetry.
There were poetry readings and parties. These were the good times : Nina was courted and fêted. Her admirers – Coppée, Villers de l’Isle-Adam, Verlaine, Anatole France and especially Charles Cros, with whom she had a tempestuous affair lasting ten years – celebrated her just as much as the artists. The room dedicated to the Cros brothers presents polychrome waxworks of Henry and Charles’ experiments in colour photography. Many of their innovative ideas were inspired by Nina and her friends.
Then the war with Prussia, followed by the Commune, brought about an abrupt change in the young woman’s life. Having welcomed republicans involved in the Commune into her salon, Nina went into exile in Geneva to escape the consequent repression. Returning to Paris in the spring of 1873, she started up her soirées again a year later, but circumstances had changed: now she lived in a modest house in a suburb near the Clichy Gate.
The former Parnassians who were now making a name for themselves (Coppée, Anatole France, Heredia, etc) snubbed the salon. A few still unknown faithful friends remained,: Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Chabrier, Léon Dierx and Charles Cros, her loyal companion.
New faces appeared: poets and young painters of an intermediate generation, finding their way: these included Forain, Franc Lamy, Georges Lorin, Richepin, Rollinat, Goudeau, Germain Nouveau. The salon of Nina De Villard, her mother’s maiden name that she adopted, was now regarded with suspicion, and she lost her social standing, and moved deliberately away to the fringes of good society.
However, this second period turned out to be fruitful: it was in this melting pot that the idea of parody was developed in the collective anthology Dixains réalistes to which she contributed, and from this the circle known as The Hydropaths was born, a precursor of the Chat Noir, a vital link in the development of Symbolism.
The nervous tension of late nights, as well as excessive alcohol, took its toll on Nina de Villard’s mental health. The end of her relationship with Charles Cros in 1877 contributed to the final breakdown. She had long considered her life over when she died at forty-one, in the same year that Manet’s portrait of her was revealed to the public.