Manet first experimented with pastel in Madame Manet on a sofa, 1874 (Wildenstein, vol. II, no. 3; coll. The Louvre, Paris), but he developed his technique and used it most consistently between 1878 and his death in 1883, a period when, due to illness, he found it too difficult to stand at the easel. Manet's technique derives not from Degas, who used the medium in a much more progressive manner, but more from the 18th century pastellists, including Quentin de la Tour and Jean-Baptiste Perronneau, an influence which is perhaps reflected in Manet's late interest in miniature painting.
Yet like Degas, pastel provided Manet with a freedom and elegance of technique with which to capture la vie moderne. He drew more than fifty pastel portraits, mostly of stylish Parisian women. As Paul Jamot and Georges Wildenstein observed, "Manet relished this female company... he registered eyes light and dark, bright and languorous, painted lips, faces coquettish and naive... He rendered all this in ... pastels which are one of the most charming and original aspects of his work, sometimes with a frankness of touch which nonetheless does not exclude delicacy, sometimes crushing his coloured crayons into an intangible powder. Thus he expressed, at one and the same time, both what was within him, and the poetry of his time" (quoted in ed. T.A. Gronberg, Manet--A Retrospective, New York, 1988, p. 300).
Manet's models were often members of his family or, at least, people he knew well, although he would sometimes use a model only once. He often spent long hours in the company of the women he portrayed, including Mry Laurent, Henriette Hausser and Louise Valtesse. Although the sitter for the present pastel has not been identified, she was like one of the fashionable young Parisiennes whom he would have met in the literary circles which centered around his studio. Manet captures this young woman's spirit as well as her beauty not through mere verisimilitude but, as John Rewald observed, "the delicacy of color-blending, the great mastery with which he harmonized the blacks, grays and white, enlivening them with strong but delicate touches which are both unexpected and enchanting, the ability to unite, in the technical process, a limpid warmth of line and values and an execution that was rich in character, all these rare endowments of the authentic painter..." (J. Rewald, The History of Impressionism, New York, 1973, p. ).