Marie Monnom (Miss M. M...)
[Mlle M. M…] 1887
oil on canvas
canvas 49.5 (h) x 50.0 (w) cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris , Purchase 1982
© RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski
Khnopff presents a tranquil interior for his portrait of Marie Monnom, painted in Brussels in the vital year 1887. She sits modestly in a simple hooped armchair, forced forward by a large cushion. Strong verticals divide the canvas, with a moonlike mirror at upper left. Two diagonals animate the composition: the skirt from waist to knee, and a counterposed corner where the right plane of the room meets the back wall.
In 1888 the painting was displayed at the exhibition staged by Les XX (The Twenty), the society of modern artists which Khnopff co-founded in 1883. The Twenty consisted of founder members who invited twenty Belgian and the same number of foreign artists to show together. James McNeill Whistler participated in the first two exhibitions, in 1884 and 1886, and his influence on Khnopff is clear. He exhibited four paintings at the first show: Symphony in white, no. 3, Nocturne: blue and silver—Chelsea, Harmony in grey and green: Miss Cicely Alexander and Arrangement in brown and black: portrait of Miss Rosa Corder. Whistler’s titles express tonal harmonies and musical analogies which are more significant than the identity of the sitter.
In Marie Monnom Khnopff adopts a subdued Whistlerian palette of blue and grey, restricting the colour range otherwise to brown and black, white and grey and subtle pink skin hues. Silvery-grey gloves hide any other flesh. The subject is presented in profile, invoking the processional, almost frozen nature of ancient Egyptian and Greek prototypes, as well as Whistler’s famous portrait of his mother. Also notable is the shallow space borrowed from Whistler. We have no sense of traditional orthogonal depth, which is cut off by dominant vertical planes and a flat blue curtain.
Who is this contained young woman? Marie Monnom (1866–1959) was the daughter of an avant-garde Belgian publisher, Veuve Monnom (the Widow Monnom). One of many little-known female modernists, Madame Monnom knew many artists and writers: she produced the journal L’Art moderne, where Emile Verhaeren heralded Khnopff, and printed the dramatic lithographs Shadows (Les chimères)1889 by Redon (Eyes closed and The sleep of Caliban). Marie, later Maria, would marry Khnopff’s friend, the Belgian Divisionist painter van Rysselberghe (Sailing boats and estuary and The man at the tiller) in 1889.
This painting was shown in Paris in 1888, at the exhibition of painting and sculpture by thirty-three French and foreign artists. Khnopff’s later career encompassed scandalous Symbolist works of the Rose + Croix period of the 1890s, a brilliant debut at the first exhibition of the Vienna Secession in 1898, and his extraordinary modernist house, the Villa Khnopff. But it is in these quiet paintings of his family and friends that the newly confident artist demonstrates his absorption of contemporary art.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009
From Masterpieces from Paris: Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin and beyond Post-Impressionism from the Musée d'Orsay exhibition book, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2009