Manet’s Secret Love

Edouard Manet, "The Bunch of Violets", 1872

Edouard Manet, “The Bunch of Violets”, 1872

Manet gave this small painting to Berthe Morisot. It contains a letter, the fan she held in his famous painting, “The Balcony”, and a bunch of violets.

Edouard Manet, "The Balcony", 1868-69

Edouard Manet, “The Balcony”, 1868-69

There has always been speculation about the relationship between Manet and Morisot. Manet, of course, was married to Suzanne Leenhoff, his former piano tutor. The circumstances of that marriage are also clouded. It is now believed that she was actually the mistress of Manet’s father, and when she became pregnant, Manet married her to spare the family embarrassment. Leenhoff’s son was at times passed off as her brother (ironic, when he may have, in fact, been Manet’s half-brother). He always referred to Manet as “godfather” and not “father”.  Manet never admitted paternity.

There is no mistaking for whom the painting of violets was intended, as both Morisot’s and Manet’s names appear on the letter in the painting. Ah, but what about the violets?

Edouard Manet, "Berthe Morisot with a Bunch of Violets", 1872

Edouard Manet, “Berthe Morisot with a Bunch of Violets”, 1872

Violet’s are a flower with which Morisot was identified.  Here she wears a violet corsage. But the violets have another meaning. In 1818 Madam Charlotte de la Tour wrote Le Langage des Fleurs, the language of flowers. In it, a meaning was assigned to every flower. Each bouquet carried a very specific message. They could indicate everything from the time of a secret assignation to the intricacies of one’s emotions.

A couple of years ago I made a trip to Tourette, France, which is known for violets the way Grasse is known for lavender. In the tourist office in one of their brochures I read that the meaning of violets in Le Langage des Fleurs  is “a secret love”.