This portrait is carefully and delicately executed, mostly in black chalk. The head of Gabriela Valette is characterised by subtle and delicate volumes as the sitter is lit from their right. Valette creates luminosity with delicate touches of white, for instance on the side of the neck cheek and bridge of the nose on Gabriela’s righthand side. The handling of the black chalk ranges from broader parallel strokes to much freer ones to define the hair. This variation of stroke and touch focuses the gaze of the observer on the appealing and meditative quality of the young woman’s face, so exquisitely achieved in the rendering of the surface details and the fall of light.
Valette painted many portraits throughout his life and as a teacher believed strongly in life studies. His portraits show the artist’s attention to the details of anatomy and proportion while also taking on a somewhat serious quality. As seen here in this sketch, his produced strong, sensitive portraits suggesting character and personality in typical portraiture pose. Valette did know sadness and suffering: his first wife Gabriela, who is represented in this sensitive portrait, died in 1917, just eight years after their marriage. His son Peter, who remained in Manchester after Valette left for France one year earlier, died in 1929 of tubercular meningitis, a disease closely related to tuberculosis of the lungs. Certainly TB was a common killer in Manchester, and the very atmosphere that inspired Peter’s father to portray the city did not help Valette’s son.
Valette was born in St Étienne, France in 1876. He was one of four children. His family earned a living from arms manufacture. Valette attened art school with great potential, winning various prizes for his work “with a distinct bias towards art rather than commerce.” Valette studied art at the local art school, which had a “foundation that emphasised the connections between art and industry, metallurgy, design and engraving.”
Valette moved to Lyon, working as an engraver by day attending art classes in the evening. He moved to Bordeaux, working as an engraver and draughtsman and attending art school by night. It was evident that Valette had a talent for his craft and came “to the attention of his teachers as an artist of promise and some distinction against a wider context of the growing importance of Impressionist painting in France and Europe.”
However in England, particularly in Manchester, where he resided for many years and produced his most important works, he is renowned for two reasons: a remarkable series of Impressionist views of the city, and his influence on his best-known pupil, L. S. Lowry.
Despite his heavy teaching commitments, Valette produced a significant body of work, including paintings, drawings – both pastel and watercolour – engravings, etchings, and lithographs.