Child with Cat, painting by Pierre August Renoir
Child with Cat, Pierre August Renoir. Oil on canvas, 1887. Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

You may have seen her face many times without knowing who she was. Born in 1878 in Paris, Julie Manet was the daughter of famous painters Berthe Mirosot and Eugene Manet. Both were part of the influential Impressionist circle. The 19th-century art movement was very radical at the time due to its ‘hyperreal’ style and use of bright colours. A painter and writer herself, Julie Manet was better known as a model and posed from birth for some of the most famous Impressionist artists. This includes her parents, and more particularly her mother who was presumed to have painted around 125 to 150 paintings of her. She also posed for other painters like Pierre-August Renoir, Edgar Degas, and her notorious uncle, Edouard Manet.

The most famous painting in which she stars is Child with Cat, made by Renoir in 1887. Commissioned by her parents, the portrait is often mentioned among the movement’s masterpieces. In the picture, we can see Julie sitting at an angle, calm and smiling. Another striking protagonist in this picture is the beloved cat she is holding on her lap who mimics her smile. The picture oozes familiarity, joy and tranquillity and reminds us that happiness is in the small things.

However, she was more than a muse. She was actually a real player within the Impressionist scene. Growing up in a rather bourgeois environment, Julie benefited from a very rich and versatile education. On top of her art education which consisted of rigorous drawing and painting training, she played the violin as well as the piano. She also visited the biggest cultural events across the capital. However, her life took an unexpected turn as she lost her father at the age of 14 and her mother at 16. Despite this tragedy, she remained very active in the cultural world. After her parent’s death, painter Renoir became her mentor while writer Stéphane Mallarme became her tutor. She even continued to pose for paintings!

However, little was known about her. This changed in 1987 when her teenage personal diaries were published. Retitled Growing up with the Impressionists, her diary reveals the inside of the Impressionist scene. Through anecdotes and accounts of private conversations, we get to see how the impressionists were in their day-to-day life. She also talks at great length about politics and major social events that occurred in that period. The most memorable is the Dreyfus Affair, a political scandal that divided France in 1894. Throughout her book, we learnt that, among others things, Degas was anti-Semitic while Pissaro was a libertarian. We also get to know her better as she shares her self-doubt and reveals deep confidence issues. More surprising, we learn that she was very religious and more conventional than we can imagine despite her upbringings. She was a very dedicated Christian and never missed attending mass.

While the writings only covered a particular life period, we get to put a voice on the face we all know so well. This changes completely our relationship with her portraits. Later in her life, she married the painter Henri Rouart with whom she had three children. She also dedicated herself to safeguard her mother’s legacy and her own! Dead at 87, it is as though she is still living, with some of her portraits being owned by the world’s most notorious museums.

-Claire Rochet
Girl Museum Inc.

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