Ashmolean Museum gets funding boost for Manet painting

Hints of modernity speak silently in the paint strokes of Edouard Manet’s Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus (1868), unsure of whether to remain locked in the realism of the past or to forgo everything that was for the sweet dissenting embrace of impressionism. Unfinished it might be, but the prelude to the artist’s better known The Balcony is suggestive of great changes in 19th century art, indeed of society at large.
This extremely significant painting, another example of Manet’s clear proclivity for contrarianism, is so important that the Ashmolean Museum has been leading a campaign to save it for the UK, despite the fact that it has not been seen in public for over a century and the owners of the painting having found a buyer. They have now received a massive boost, with the Heritage Lottery (HLF) fund donating £5.9 million to the cause. In addition to other funds, the museum now needs to raise £980,000 by the beginning of August to acquire the painting.
Some background is required to put into context the validity of this situation. Manet’s painting is currently in the possession of the family of the late American artist John Singer Sargent, who had agreed a deal worth £28.35 million with an unknown foreign buyer late last year. However, because the painting is considered a national treasure, despite not being British in origin, it has been under a sale embargo of sorts, with the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest placing a temporary bar on its export.
This is possible through the rules that govern private treaty sales. The dramatic difference in price the Ashmolean Museum has to pay compared to that offered by the foreign buyer is possible because the government effectively “waives” the substantial amount of tax that is added in private sales of this kind.
“It entails sharing the benefit of fiscal exemption between the vendor (usually 25 per cent) and the purchaser (usually 75 per cent),” explains the Art Council. “Hence the vendor typically obtains a sweetener of 25 per cent and the purchase price is reduced by 75 per cent of the IHT [Inheritance Tax] and CGT [Capital Gains Tax] otherwise payable.”
Explaining the HLF’s decision to bestow such a sizeable grant, Carole Souter, the body’s chief executive, described the painting as a “real masterclass in brushstroke technique” and, as such, said the chance to purchase it for today and tomorrow’s generation, at such a competitive price, is certainly a rare opportunity.
The painting will go a long way to boosting the already preeminent status of Ashmolean, which is purportedly the most visited museum outside of the capital. It will, says its director Christopher Brown, transform its holding of impressionistic and post-impressionistic art monumentally, as well as make it one of the leading centres in the study of 19th century French art.
Though Manet was reluctant to class himself as an impressionist painter, he did, nevertheless, influence the early pioneers of the art movement and, as is evident throughout his oeuvre, flirted with the free form ideas explored through this style that ushered in the modern era. Just under a million will ensure that it can be explored more often than once a century.