Fiona Graham writes from Oxford: The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is very pleased with itself. It has just paid $12.23 million for Edouard Manet’s portrait of Mademoiselle Claus. Which is pretty good for Oxford because the painting had been sold to an overseas buyer for at least three times that amount. However, up pops the British government who said that the painting should have an export ban until this week because the Manet has outstanding cultural importance. Really? It gets even more pompous. The director of the Ashmolean, the brilliant Dr Christopher Brown said: ‘To have succeeded in acquiring the portrait this year, when the UK is in the international spotlight, is something of which the museum and the entire country can be proud.’
Oh come off it, Good Doctor Brown. A better script than that please. This is such an important painting that you had never even seen it yourself until it came up for sale in February this year.
And now you’re actually telling us the Ashmolean is so clever getting the painting in Jubilee and London Olympics Year? What on earth does that mean? You want a Gold Medal or something? Britain in the spotlight or not, the achievement is just the same. Who writes your script – ought to be sacked. Makes you sound like a dafty. But there’s something else: the entire country can be proud.
Yes, this is a famous and wonderful and expensive painting by one of the greatest French, repeat French, artists of any time. But why do you really believe the whole country can be proud? The whole country has never heard of this painting. Most of the country, sad to say Dear Doctor Brown, has never heard of Manet and those who have can never remember which one is Manet and which one is Monet.
The British, more than one country, Dear Doctor, are not cultured. They have and there are wonderful British painters, musicians and writers. But the majority of the people and therefore the country is not a cultured lot. Bernard Shaw remarked that this is the country that has cultivated the language of Milton, Shakespeare and the Bible. But most of us are Doolittles – father and daughter prior to the appearance of Higgins. It’s not in the accent, it’s in the sweetness, rhythm and contentment of the sounds and breath of the nations of these island peoples.
Unless I talk to my Friends of the Gallery people, I am hard pushed to find a single person who really cares a monkey’s fist whether the Manet stays. Ah, cry the Save the Manet lobby. The money for it was raised in just eight months. This proves we care and more than that, we are a culturally caring nation willing to put our hands in our pockets for such an exquisite work of art. That’s the way it is sold. But it is not true.
Out of the $12.23 million dollars paid for the Manet, $9.24 million came out of the Heritage Lottery Fund and $1.33 million from The Art Fund. The loose change (about $1.7 million) came from trusts, foundations and a very few private people – and all of that was tax deductible.
I don’t see in that bit of accounting the beginning of an idea that the country cared more than a few bad cents for the Manet.
Now I do happen to think it’s a wonderful but unfinished painting of Fanny Claus who was a very close friend of Manet’s wife, Suzanne Leenhoff. She’s wearing a sweet bonnet and a white gown and an expression that says she’s rather pleased with herself. In fact the painting was not in the centre of Manet’s mind. He abandoned it as a three-quarter finished study for a much different oil called Le Balcon when Fanny is relegated to an observer. The Ashmolean painting dates from 1868 and when Manet died in 1884, the canvas was bought by the American painter John Singer Sargent and has stayed in the UK ever since.
In spite of its apparent greatness, not many have rushed to admire it. I bet you don’t know a single person who has seen it or remembers it if they have. But more will see it next year. It’s been taken on tour so that the museum can pay a bit of lip service of showing the big budget investment “to the people”.
But the way this has been talked up we would think that if nasty horrid foreigners had bought it, then it would disappear for all times. Rubbish. Just as many would have seen it as wanted to see it in the more than a century it’s been here. Personally I think the French should have it. He’s one of theirs.
So what makes it so important to the Ashmolean? Simple: like most galleries in the UK, they’ve nothing but a few scraps of Manet. This will be a triumph for The Good & Ever Great Doctor Brown. It will be his story, the Ashmolean’s centre-piece for years to come. Mind you, the museum is a fine place. It gets more than a million visitors a year. So book your ticket.
Was it really worth the money?
My money says yes, it was. In fact it was quite cheap in the present market. But please Dr Brown and the Ashmolean PR department, you’ve got a fine painting that deserves more than a few platitudes.