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Ashmolean buys Manet's Mademoiselle Claus after raising £7.8m

Oxford museum succeeds in campaign to keep in Britain painting regarded as a key impressionist work

The Ashmolean museum in Oxford has succeeded in buying Edouard Manet's portrait of Mademoiselle Claus, regarded as a key impressionist work, after raising £7.83m in just eight months, including hundreds of donations from the public ranging from £1.50 to £10,000.

If the appeal had failed, the painting would have left Britain, after being sold at auction last year for a record £28.5m – the difference in price represents the tax breaks for works of art going to British museum collections.

On Wednesday, two pale serious young women came face to face in Oxford: Fanny Claus, the subject of the arresting 1868 painting, and Mara Talbot, the 11-year-old who, with her mother, gave the final £30 donation to the public appeal.

"Maybe if she was smiling I might like her more," Mara eventually concluded, after studying her intently, and dealing coolly with the media – the photographers were bewitched by her own choice of outfit for the day, complete with flowery hair band, which chimed uncannily well with the painting – "but I do like her very much".

Mara's mother, Vicky Hirsch, a freelance art teacher, had only seen photographs of the painting – a study for Manet's Le Balcon – when she gave £30 to the appeal last week. "We live quite near and we come here often. It's so important for people to be able to see real things in museums for free. And it seems appropriate in this week when we're celebrating the achievements of individuals in the Olympics, that the little somebody like me can afford to give can make such a big difference."

Christopher Brown, director of the Ashmolean – one of the oldest public museums in the world and the most visited outside London, with a million visitors a year – only saw the painting himself for the first time in February, in the gallery of a London art dealer. It had just been sold to an overseas buyer for £28.5m, but the government had put a temporary export bar on it to allow a British museum the chance of matching the price. Brown was enchanted, and did some rapid sums in his head.

"I realised that both the National Gallery, and the National Gallery of Scotland, who would both have liked it very much, were tied up in fundraising for the Titians, and that because it carried an 80% tax bill for the owners, which would be waived if it came to a national collection, we could get it for a quarter of its value – and that we really might be in with a chance."

The Heritage Lottery Fund gave £5.9m, the Art Fund charity another £850,000, and the rest came from trusts, patrons, and more than 1,000 donations from individual members of the public. In gratitude, it will be sent on a national tour to regional museums next year.

The painter John Singer Sargent fell in love with the picture in 1884, bought it at the studio sale after Manet's death, and brought it to England. By then the pale young woman was dead, too: Claus, a brilliant musician, had married the artist Pierre Prins, but died of tuberculosis in 1877, aged just 31. The painting had remained with Sargent's descendants until the sale.

The Ashmolean is most famous for its archaeology collections, but has a marvellous art collection including outstanding works by Pissarro and other contemporaries of Manet, and early Van Goghs. However, of Manet himself, in common with most British collections, they have very little: a small landscape and two unfinished oils, and a watercolour version of his Le Déjeuner Sur L'Herbe, a work considered scandalous in its day.

Colin Harrison, senior curator of European art, has already been on to the Quai D'Orsay museum in Paris to discuss exhibiting his new treasure side-by-side with Manet's very different final version, in which Fanny has retreated into the background, her face a blur, losing the expression of a woman deep in some private contemplation that makes the earlier version so haunting.

"Another obvious exhibition would be Manet in England – asking why in fact there are so few Manets in England, a real puzzle," Harrison said.

Although the picture will go on a national tour next year, Brown cannot wait to have it home permanently.

"Our pictures are really very good, but I think when you see this work on the gallery walls it will sing in a way that few of the others can manage." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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