During the final six months of his life, at age 51, Manet devoted all his remaining creative energy to painting a series of floral still-lifes, each more beautiful and poignant than the one before. The paintings depict bouquets that friends brought to his Paris apartment while he was home-bound—here, two voluptuous roses and several sprays of lace-like lilac, arranged in a low crystal vase. Rendered with a superbly delicate touch, at the very peak of the blossoms’ vitality, these late bouquets are exquisitely spare, fresh, and impromptu visions—an acceptance and a celebration of the transience of life, created as Manet’s last days slipped away. “In these works, he achieved the total simplicity and perfection that a painter could only hope for,” George Mauner has written. “It is impossible when looking at these pictures not to remember Manet’s words, spoken in Venice thirteen years earlier, that an artist can say everything he has to say with ‘flowers, fruit, and clouds.’ With these last flowers, Manet gave us an eloquent and touching demonstration of his belief” (exh. cat., op. cit., 2000, pp. 46 and 144).
Manet had not devoted himself so intensively to flower painting since the mid-1860s, when he created a series of sumptuous still-lifes depicting peonies cut from his garden at Gennevilliers. Yet bouquets were a key referential element in some of the most affirmatively, scandalously modern figure compositions of his career. In Olympia, a floral arrangement announces the arrival of the unseen client in the courtesan’s chambers—perhaps ironically, since seduction here is a business transaction, not a gallant wooing. A traditional painterly element, the bouquet may also imply the seduction of the viewer by art. In Argenteuil, the woman’s companion has presented her with a spray of flowers that is carefully chosen and arranged—groomed, as she is, for the contrivances of courtship, despite their outdoor activity. In Un bar aux Folies-Bergère, a water glass containing two roses—very much like the present still-life, painted only a year later—stands front and center as a symbol of Manet’s artistic performance, while the blossoms tucked in the barmaid’s bosom suggest a parallel between aesthetic pleasure and erotic desire.
When Manet made a portrait of his only student Eva Gonzalès in 1870, he tellingly chose to depict her in the act of painting a floral still-life. On the floor at her feet beside a single fallen blossom is a rolled-up canvas that reveals just enough of its surface for us to see that it is also a flower painting, with Manet’s signature visible at the very edge. In this way, Manet reminds us that the visible copy on the easel is not in fact by his student, but by the master himself. Manet, observed the influential critic Théophile Thoré, “sometimes bestows even more importance on a bouquet of flowers than on a woman’s face”—a method that was seen, most famously by Zola, as a defining element of Manet’s radical modernity, with its ostensibly objective transcription of visual reality (quoted in Impressionist Still Life, exh. cat., The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., 2001, p. 13).
When Manet turned exclusively to flower painting in his last months, he pared down this exemplary motif, in many ways paradigmatic of his life’s work, to its purest form, which he then invested with his most delicate sensibility and craft. Each of the late bouquets is placed simply at the center of the composition, on a gray marble tabletop against a neutral ground. Within this elegantly spare setting, the flowers provide a sudden burst of freshness—more like plein air painting than studio work. The small vases and drinking glasses that hold the blooms are all glass or crystal, and Manet delighted in capturing the sparkle of light on the transparent surface and the distortion of the stems below the meniscus. “This clear glittering focus of light in the glass receptacle stands in contrast to the flowers themselves, which give back the light in a completely different way,” Robert Gordon and Andrew Forge have written. “Their soft petals seem to absorb it like velvet or reflect it like snow” (op. cit., 1986, p. 14).
Other than our own knowledge that the blossoms are destined to wilt, there is no overt link in these exquisite paintings to the theme of vanitas. On the contrary, they constitute an unabashed celebration of visual pleasure and an affirmation of the material realm. “Their cheerfulness may imply Manet’s disdain for conventional and labored emotion; perhaps they testify to the importance of outward appearances—of aesthetic spectacle as the essential distraction from an unpredictable world that holds human existence in its grip,” James Rubin has written. “Their vibrancy celebrates the joy of color and delicate form, the vitality and refinement of a life in art” (Manet, Paris, 2010, p. 342).
Throughout his career, Manet had frequently given still-life paintings to friends as intimate gifts and tributes to shared artistic interests. In 1872, for example, he presented Berthe Morisot with a small canvas of violets to thank her for posing for a portrait in which she wears the same blue blossoms as a corsage. On a folded notecard beside the bouquet, he inscribed the painting “A Mlle Berthe”, anticipating the many letters that he would write to female friends and admirers in his last years, their pages exquisitely watercolored with flowers. Although the painted violets in the 1872 still-life may be understood as a gift from Manet to Morisot, the red lacquer fan alongside them was Morisot’s own and appears in several portraits that Manet made of her. The still-life thus anticipates the arrangement that Manet’s floral offering would take once it arrived in the hands of its recipient.
“Still lifes, usually of fruit or flowers, became instruments in his social relations,” Rubin has observed. “He used them as marks of homage or admiration—as offerings, like the bouquets they sometimes pictured. Such largesse suggests a man of breeding and gentility who could afford the time and effort to bestow a bouquet of visual poetry upon a friend. Can there ever be a better personal gift than something directly from the giver’s hand? The reason is precisely the sense of physical proximity such a gift implies, for it actually indexes the human touch, like a signature” (ibid., p. 338).
In the late floral still-lifes, this self-referential visual dialogue has become even more moving and meaningful. Paintings such as Lilas et roses represent a tangible record of gifts that Manet’s friends brought to him as a gesture of caring—canvases that he in turn presented to others who were near and dear to him, in an act of love returned. He gave the present painting to Ginevra Hureau de Villeneuve, a daughter of the doctor who treated him during this period. On 3 November 1882, she wrote a note of thanks to the artist for the gift: “I love flowers, and white lilac and roses above all. In sending me some which will never fade, you have given me the most lively pleasure. I am proud to think that a great artist has taken up his brushes again for me and has gone back to work. I hope he will not stop there and that at the next exhibition we shall see appear some of his highly original and seductive works” (quoted in M. Potter et al., op. cit., 1984, pp. 120-122).
As an offering to Manet, there could have been no better choice than flowers, which had so often been central to his aesthetic vision. The actress Méry Laurent, who brightened Manet’s final months more than anyone else, understood this well. “Some of the flowers, totally out of season, must have been fiendishly expensive,” Beth Brombert has noted. “But Méry knew how much flowers meant to him at that time” (Edouard Manet: Rebel in a Frock Coat, Boston, 1996, p. 451). To paint these blossoms extended and commemorated the pleasure that Manet took in contemplating their fragile beauty and savoring their associations. As gifts to others, the still-lifes functioned as eloquent silent testimony to the delights of the material world, intended to survive long beyond the artist himself. “The last flower paintings are all like bouquets,” Gordon and Forge have written. “We can imagine each painting made as a response to a visit, perhaps started in company, the studio filled; or in silence. The bouquet is the trace of the departed visitor; the painting is like an answering visit—the flowers given in return now committed to another life, a picture” (op. cit., 1986, p. 13).
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller acquired Lilas et roses in 1938. “I remember very well this small Manet flower picture hanging with a number of other flower paintings in Mother’s sitting room at 740 Park Avenue,” David Rockefeller recalled. “We now have it in the front hall in our house on 65th Street. It is certainly a painting that gives ongoing pleasure” (M. Potter et al., op. cit., 1984, p. 122).