Property Formerly in the Collection of Jacques Doucet
Post Lot Text
'Ms. Berthe Morisot is French in her refinement, her elegance, her joyfulness, her lightheartedness […]; she grinds petals of flowers on her palette, in order to then spread them out onto the canvas using spirited brushstrokes, that are blown and thrown onto the surface slightly randomly […] This fugitive frivolity, this pleasant, bubbly and frivolous energy are reminiscent of Fragonard’s work, without the deep science, the texture’s density and the emanating light that brings so much homogeneity to the painting.'
C. Ephrussi, ‘Exposition des artistes indépendants’, in Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 1 May 1880, p. 485-488 quoted in Berthe Morisot, exh. cat., Musée d’Orsay, Paris, 2019, p. 189.
Following the recent success of the touring retrospective exhibition dedicated to Berthe Morisot (Musée national des beaux-arts of Québec, Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia; Dallas Museum of Art; Musée d’Orsay, Paris and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston), which featured the present painting, light has finally been shed again on this Impressionist female artist’s oeuvre, once overlooked. It is a privilege for Christie’s to offer Paule Gobillard en robe de bal painted in 1887, one of the artist’s sought-after family portraits formerly in the Jacques Doucet collection, that epitomizes not only Morisot’s œuvre at its peak but also the essence of Impressionist portraiture.
Born in Quimperlé (Finistère, Brittany), Paule Gobillard (1867-1946) was Berthe Morisot’s niece, being the eldest of Théodore Gobillard and Berthe’s sister, Yves Morisot’s three children. Paule and her two siblings moved in with Berthe after their mother’s death in 1893, living alongside their cousin Julie Manet (1878-1966), Berthe’s daughter with Eugène Manet, Édouard Manet’s brother. Raised in this bustling artistic environment, Paule Gobillard, like her sister Jeannie and her cousin Julie, aspired to become painters themselves, very much influenced and encouraged by Berthe Morisot. The latter obtained permission for Paule to have supervised sessions to copy paintings at the Louvre museum in June 1886 and arranged for her to attend Henri Gervex’s classes at the Académie Valentino. Whilst her sister and cousin respectively married the writer Paul Valéry (1871-1945) and the painter Ernest Rouart (1874-1942), son of the engineer, collector and painter Henri Rouart (1833-1912), Paule never married. She dedicated her life to painting, regularly exhibiting her works at the Salon des Indépendants from 1894 to 1912, and at the Salon d’Automne until her death in 1946.
Berthe Morisot included Paule Gobillard in several of her paintings as well as portraying her on her own, such as in the present work or in Paule Gobillard peignant, also dated 1887, housed in the Musée Marmottan, Paris. Edgar Degas, who had painted Paule’s mother, took photos of the Gobillard-Manet girls (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), whilst Renoir also featured Paule in a few of his paintings, and became the three orphan girls’ tutor following Berthe’s death in 1895. By the time Morisot painted Paule Gobillard en robe de bal in 1887, she had already established herself as one of Impressionism’s key figures. As the only female painter to exhibit her work at the First Exhibition of Impressionist Painters in 1874, Morisot took part in all the Impressionist group shows until the last one in 1886 (except in 1879, having given birth to her daughter Julie in 1878). Shortly after completing Paule Gobillard en robe de bal, Morisot found herself once again showcasing her works - one of which was the present painting - alongside Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Whistler, at the 1887 exhibition held at the Galerie Georges Petit in Paris. The loose yet very controlled brushstrokes that define this seminal portrait’s technique bear witness to Morisot’s self-confidence and her artistic freedom, breaking away from the influence of fellow Impressionist painters such as Manet and Renoir and re-asserting her own artistic identity as a female painter. Coincidently a direct descendant of Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), Morisot also greatly admired 18th century French painting as well as the 17th century Flemish master Peter-Paul Rubens (1577-1640), whose works she had seen during her trip to Antwerp in 1885-1886, just over a year before painting Paule Gobillard en robe de bal. The subject, the dominance of colour over line and the vigorous brushstrokes reveal Morisot’s rococo sources of inspiration, yet by the mid-eighties she was also inspired by Renoir, having visited him in his studio in January 1886, when he was working on Les Grandes Baigneuses (1884-1887; Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia).
Just as Ephrussi commented back in 1880, Morisot’s signature "spirited brushstrokes" convey such liveliness, spontaneity and presence to the present work. Yet Paule Gobillard’s apparent calmness, her fixed deep-blue gaze and her still pose strikingly contrast with Morisot’s highly gestural approach to her treatment of the subject, raising questions on the context around this twenty-year old young girl. With her charming pink roses neatly arranged around her waist – possibly a tribute to Morisot’s friend and fellow painter Renoir, who also became a mentor for Paule Gobillard as an artist – she seems caught between daydreaming and perhaps worrying about going out. The wide range of light blue tones combined with a rich variety of whites and pastel pinks, applied in lively thick brushstrokes plunge Morisot’s sitter in an almost ephemeral atmosphere, emphasized by Paule’s apparent unawareness of both the viewer and the painter. Morisot brings the beholder almost in physical contact with her sitter, through the dynamics of her snapshot composition, yet the girl’s psychological dimension captured by the artist enables her to preserve Paule’s intimacy.
The museum-quality of Paule Gobillard en robe de bal seems to have been acknowledged very early on, given its prestigious provenance and exhibition history. The first owner was Japanese dealer Tadamasa Hayashi (1853-1906), who introduced traditional Japanese art in Europe in the last quarter of the 19th century. At the turn of the century, the portrait’s elegance and delicate feminine touch drew the attention of the great French fashion designer and collector Jacques Doucet (1853-1929) and remained in his family’s collection until today. Sylvie Patry, chief curator at the Barnes Foundation, commented on Doucet’s choice of painting in the latest Morisot exhibition catalogue, writing that 'the dress’s relatively unusual simplicity, but even more so the composition and execution’s informal aspect, that leaves the drawn grid visible in places, may have seduced this great amateur of modern painting'.
(S. Patry, ‘La “beauté de l’être en toilette"’, in exh. cat., ibid., p. 95).