After the tumultuous exhibition of the Olympia (Paris, Musée d’Orsay) that scandalised the Salon in 1865, Manet left for Spain to forget the persecution he experienced at the hands of the Parisian critics. During this short stay, he happened to meet Théodore Duret, who was dining at the same restaurant.
The new friends decided to discover Madrid together by strolling along its picturesque side streets, watching bullfights, and going to see the works of Greco in Toledo. Their visit to Prado was mainly devoted to Velazquez, whom Manet admiringly called “the painter of painters”.
Following a process borrowed from the Spanish master, Manet placed his model in a neutral space, with no boundary between the floor and walls. Only the shadows at the feet of the figure and the stool give an impression of depth. We possess a direct account of the conception of this painting thanks to the biography that Duret devoted to Manet in 1926. According to the author, the still life placed at the bottom left on a stool was added at the end, with Manet completing his painting with the luminous touch of the lemon.
As a cognac trader, Théodore Duret (1838-1929) was a keen traveller, out of professional necessity but also out of choice. He was one of the first people to take an interest in Far Eastern art and played an important role in popularising Japanism. A committed Republican, he founded the journal La Tribune (1868), with collaborators including Émile Zola and Jules Ferry. As an art critic and collector, he established himself as one of the leading proponents of the Impressionists through his purchases and publications. The portrait emphasises the dandy side of the model, who was known for his elegance.
Not without a touch of humour, Duret wrote, “I find your chap very gallant,” in his letter of thanks to the painter when he received this painting as a sign of their close friendship. He would only let go of it many years later, to donate it to the Petit Palais.