The Bar at the Folies Bergères 1881 (the year Picasso was born) is clearly one of Manet’s greatest paintings, a summation of all that his art had achieved in the forty odd years that preceded it, and something more. That it is absent from the Royal Academy’s current exhibition deprives us of the thrill and the rewards that could have been had by a direct comparison of it with the Luncheon in the Studio 1868. (Munich). (When were they last seen together?) So I will have to content myself with an account of this latter picture for now, as a starting point, since it is perhaps the best picture on show.
In The Bar, the central figure, the barmaid, is placed so that the shadow to the bridge of her nose is virtually plumb-centre of the picture, and echoed by the line of buttons on her dress which trail away slightly to the right. Everything else is weighed in the balance on either side of her.
In The Luncheon, the oblique near central figure, the teenage boy, half-sitting on the edge of a table with his left hand resting on the tables’s edge is even more prominently forward, with legs cut off at the knees by the lower framing edge (whereas the barmaid is distanced by the plane of the marble table-top), so that we look to left and right of him at two very different still-life groupings, and two staged actors or models who seem to exist in different spatial settings. No attempt is made to draw them together under any rational master narrative of spatial perspective or to control our vantage point as viewers of the picture, i.e. no inner spectator, in art-historical parlance.
To the right, behind the table covered in a white checkered linen tablecloth, sits a man apart, with a grey hat in a smoker’s reverie, which resembles a similarly disinvolved figure in Vermeer’s Woman and Two Men 1659/60 (Brunswick). A peeled lemon is placed prominently placed in both pictures.
Is it just an accident that two pictures of Manet’s early maturity, the Boy with Cherries 1859 (Gulbenkian Foundation), and the double portrait of his parents 1860 (Museé D’ Orsay) should so strongly echo aspects of Vermeer’s The Lacemaker and one of Vermeer’s own early paintings, Christ in the House of Mary and Martha (Edinburgh)? The Lacemaker only entered the Louvre in 1870. Was there an influence from ubiquitous reproduction through etching and the dissemination of prints? These certainly seems to have influenced Manet’s enthusiasm for Goya (before he saw the paintings in Madrid in 1865), and his own drawing and etching style.
To return to The Luncheon, we look left and down to the corner of the picture and are led into the fictive space by a subtle diagonal indicated by the sword passing under the edge of the tablecloth – we look right and are led into a planar recession across the table-top from another diagonally positioned knife. No attempt is made to bring these angles of perception under one controlling vantage point.
Above and behind the armour in the left foreground are positioned a jardinière (with castor-oil plant?), but the diminution in scale of these objects is minimal, and inconsistent with the perspectival diminution given at the table-top on the right. The maid holds, or rather does not hold a large silver coffee-pot, since it is held up by a scarcely disguised prop, to save the model from having to hold it for lengthy sessions of painting, and we can be fairly sure that these did take place, since Manet seems to need the constant presence of a sitter in order to be Manet. (For instance his portrait of Rouvière, The Tragic Actor 1865, Washington, because the sitter had died before the portrait was completed to Manet’s satisfaction, required sittings with two other models for the hands and legs).
What unifies the picture, apart from its being a magnificent symphony in greys, whites and blacks? A mode of vision which says – “I have drawn together this set of studio props, these actors – I have seen them one after another by moving my gaze from one to the other (the way we would in life) – and I have placed them in a hierarchy of degrees of definition, degrees of focus. I could give this or that feature, of clothing, of the texture of still-life objects or facial exactitude greater definition, but it does not suit my purposes. Focus is controlled by an optical blurring of subsidiary parts which only exists in the painted world, and especially only in my painted world.”
Light sources can be manipulated inconsistently in order to highlight the artist’s sovereignty in this regard. For instance the brilliantly sketchy dog in the Portrait of Desboutin, 1875 (Sao Paolo) (compare Reynolds’ Mr. Peter Ludlow, 1755) appears to be illuminated from underneath, but in a way that does not draw attention to it as rival to the main force of the painting, which is concentrated on the bohemian rag-taggle gypsy persona of the artist subject.
The Luncheon should also be compared with Chardin’s The Ray 1728, which was in the collection of the Academie Royale before it entered the Louvre. The two pictures are almost exactly the same size and the objects in both pictures are arranged in relatively shallow recession parallel to the picture plane, with background walls which echo the orthogonal emphasis of their composition. Due to the prominence of the boy, and the diagonal placement of maid and jardinière “behind” him, The Luncheon has if anything greater spatial depth than The Ray. The diagonally placed knife overhanging the table’s edge is a direct quote, as are the oysters, and the spooked cat is also humorously quoted in Manet’s Olympia. The Ray haunted him, giving rise to many of his still-lives, especially as it looks forward to Goya as well. (I seem to recall Michael Fried dealing with these links in greater detail, but I do not have access to his writing.)
I could wax eloquent about the many brilliant passages in The Luncheon in the Studio, the way it uses grey, in a way that anticipates Matisse’s Piano Lesson 1912, to create an illusion of depth behind young Lèon Leenhoff’s head, and yet establishing a firmly felt planar backdrop which asserts the two-dimensional reality of the painted surface (even through glass and distant spotlighting which picks up the glossy varnish someone has seen fit to apply, making the picture hard to see.)
But to move on to other aspects of Manet’s style – Madame Manet at the Piano 1868 and Interior at Arcachon 1871 reveal great sensitivity to the canvas weave as a unifying element, (the latter picture again so close to Matisse in the early Nice years), paint thicknesses and potentially protruding edges of shapes being pared back leaving the mark of the implement plainly visible, and surfaces scraped back so that background areas have equal prominence at the picture surface with shapes that potentially stand in front of them – as with the console table and the spaces beneath and beside it.
When faced with the problem of the drastic foreshortening of a bicycle seen front on in close-up in another small picture, he simply gives up, and scrapes it all out, just leaving the handlebars parallel to the picture plane.
I was astonished on quitting the exhibition to find just down the road at the Stephen Paisnel Gallery, a painting by Terry Frost (Umber and Grey 1960) and one by Trevor Bell (Broken Form on Venetian Red 1960), both of which had exactly the same qualities, the scraping out of edges, the scraping back of accretions of paint to allow the canvas weave to do its work of back-illuminating areas of colour and maintaining surface continuity, all of which is Manet’s discovery.
Much closer to him as source, of course, is the link with early Cézanne, who was smitten by the orchestration of black against white, and the smooth but solid modelling of pictures like The Smoker (Minneapolis) which achieves the inverse anachronism of looking uncannily like Cézanne’s The Magdalen 1866 (Museé D’ Orsay) with its dull cream flesh tones and clumsy modeling with bold white strokes as if the influence were working the wrong way round. (Was it Goya who admired Gainsborough, or Gainsborough who admired Goya?). Cézanne said of the influence – “How I am feeble in life. I cannot command his bold impasto.” Cézanne’s Paul Alexis Reading to Zola 1869-70 (Sao Paolo) should be compared with Manet’s Portrait of Zacharie Astruc 1866. The greatness of Manet as a catalyst for younger artists is that they (chiefly Cézanne and Monet) were fired to respond to his innovations in kind, to exceed favoured aspects of his style, and to produce almost immediately powerful innovations which eclipsed him – Cézanne, with a more tempestuous temperament, by exaggeration of his dramatic contrasts of light and shade, and his planar simplifications – and Monet, taking things out of the studio, with the astonishingly vivid and emphatic handling of daylight colour in his own masterpiece Déjeuner Sur L’Herbe (Museé D’ Orsay).
Manet was never entirely comfortable with plein-air painting. Competing with the Impressionists unsettled his art, and added little to his already majesterial achievements, except for the superb Argenteuil 1874 (Tournai), The Bar returned him to his core strengths with spectacular results.
Whether or not the Portrait of Monsieur Brun 1879 (Tokyo) was actually painted out of doors (no it can’t have been, so multi-layered is it), convincingly it presents an effect of strong sunlight reflected from the ground rising upwards to illuminate frontally the trousers and beautifully painted blue-violet top-coat modelled with subtle strokes of colour in the shaded areas, with many superimposed glazes in this instance, showing how varied Manet’s technique can be in response to particular situations. The patterned chair in the Zola portrait is also an example of superimposed softly brushed glazes. (When I made my copy of The Bar, I had to acquire really soft and flexible synthetic bristles to imitate him). Monsieur Brun’s face, though cursorily treated (possibly unfinished) is also lit up (buttercup-wise) from beneath, in accordance with the (in this instance) consistency of illumination.
This effect of frontal lighting Manet perhaps appropriated from his experiences in Nadar’s studio. It is a practice of which later photographers have made a specialty – but what electric lighting was available to photographers in Nadar’s day? One would dearly love to know about the architecture of Manet’s studios, the positioning of the windows, roof-lights, clear-storey windows – the sorts of evidence amply provided by Vermeer, for example, from within his own pictures. But such evidence scarcely appears in Manet. One has to surmise, and in any case he disguises the possible reality by games with illumination.
Emilie Ambre as Carmen 1880 (Philadelphia) is a late work, a tour de force of concealed and revealed illumination, and of spontaneous rapid painting, rendering this “vision of loveliness” almost insubstantial in a “lit up from within” (literally) “first flush of youth” confection, (though Emilie was no spring chicken), one of his most successfully Impressionist works. The body, arms and head scarcely exist as sculpturally realized “forms”, and do not try to be. Everything is concentrated on the de bas en haut lighting effect which strikes the face from the right, directly over the painters shoulder. But the result is anything but photographic, indeed it is anti-photographic, as most of Manet’s aesthetic is. Our eyes are led up through the flurry of colour touches to arrive at the no doubt flattering vision of Emilie’s features (again insubstantial); the style evokes memories of the English school, especially Thomas Lawrence, as I am sure Manet was aware. And Reynolds’ portrait of Lady Caroline Howard (Washington) one of Reynolds’ greatest paintings, should be compared to Madame Brunet 1860-63 (J. P. Getty Museum L.A.) (not exhibited).
Reynolds, in those moments when his vision is clear, brightened by day and uncluttered with grandiose ambition, is of a startling “modernity”, which I am sure Manet (and Baudelaire) admired – Miss Crewe 1774-75 (Private Collection) of which the Royal Academy Catalogue 1986 says “… seen with sympathetic but sharp eye. The paint is handled with directness and fluency and the resulting design is – powerful by any standards”. And of another picture – “Reynolds’ handling of the very liquid paint – the quick flourishes for the lace, and the squiggles for the ear-drops”… Miss Mary Pelham 1757 (another small picture) and these mentioned give more to the future of painting than any of Reynolds’ fancy pictures. Miss Crewe could almost have been painted by Goya or by Manet.
Paradoxically it was Ruskin, completely blind to Manet and French painting generally, who said – “To see, really see, is the only useful thing we ever do on earth”. This is not “realism” nor even naturalism as defined by Zola, and Manet’s whole oeuvre should be seen as a subtle critique of Courbet, great though Courbet can be.
If we were to take seriously the injunction to see the phenomenal world as it actually is, we would not see it with the holistic vision Courbet imposes on it. And this is where the subtler perceptual apparatuses of Manet and Cézanne come into play, tilting the whole modern world into a deeper engagement with perceiving and registering, subjective and objective fact. And that is the unfinished story of “modernism”. However the styles of later Courbet and middle-period Manet, the 1870’s, overlap, in competition with one another (but that’s another story).
The miracle is that in spite of the copious figure of Courbet so recently upon him, with all that his doctrine of “realism” implies, Manet, through his obtuse take on history was able to work around him. His own manifesto in reply to Courbet is The Old Musician 1861-62 (Washington) (not exhibited). As Robert Rosenblum says – “One wonders, for example, whether Manet himself was not attracted to Reynolds’ idea of portraiture as a kind of mock costume-drama and the use of the venerable art of the museums in a parodistic way” (from Reynolds R.A. 1986).
And true enough, Courbet and the artificiality of the English school combine to comic effect in the bizarre Eugène Pertuiset, Lion Hunter 1881 (Sao Paolo) (not exhibited) in which the semblance of a stuffed lion (echoes of Delacroix) is slumped behind a fore-grounded tree, while the hunter kneels improbably on rudimentary legs, dressed in what we are told is Bavarian hunting costume, holding a shotgun. Here Manet does realize a convincing diagonal foreshortening of the gun held in podgy but firm hands without allowing an illusion that the projecting gun barrel breaks the picture space. This picture evokes comparison with Courbet’s The Greyhounds of the Count De Choiseul 1866 (St. Louis), where the “background”, or back cloth is an equally lurid fiction.
It is usually Matisse who is praised for his gentle, gossamer touched brushwork, teasing the surface into an ambiguous relationship with the depicted spaces, but Manet already has all of this, and he uses it to vary his background spaces from luminously atmospheric to sonorous, dark and pressing close. In The Little Lange 1862 (compare Reynolds’ A Young Black c. 1770, Menil Foundation, Houston) the feet and legs are scarcely defined at all, barely differentiated from their shadowy ground plane, which is coextensive with, fused with the surrounding “space”; gradually up through the body, shape comes into focus, until everything is concentrated on the boy’s head, which is clearly three-dimensionally defined. But the more one looks at the paintings of the past that Manet may have studied, the more of a constant in the art of the 18th and 19th centuries this way of treating backgrounds is seen to be. Consider for instance Chardin’s Dead Rabbit with Hunting Gear which entered the Louvre in 1852, or Antoine-Jean Gros’ small Study for a Portrait of Bonaparte on the Bridge of Arcola 1796 (The Louvre) which was exhibited at the Salon in 1801, and in which the cloudy “background” looms forward enveloping the figure, which itself is reduced to an almost flat silhouette, the hair melting into its brushy surround, only the modelling of the face having definition. And Goya is the supreme precursor of this scumbled surface- clouding brushwork. Gros only allows this aspect of style free rein in small studies for his large history paintings, whereas Manet brings this practice to the fore in his Salon pictures too. He says of Valesquez’s Portrait of a Famous Actor “the background vanishes, an atmosphere envelops the good man, a vital presence dressed in black.”
What a pity that the portrait of Jeanne Duval 1862 (Budapest) is not present (Toledo only), for it is one of Manet’s most spectacular compositions. Baudelaire’s mistress looks half-buried beneath a vast white billowing crinoline skirt which takes up half of the picture’s surface, its stripes summarily suggested with scarcely form-defining strokes. Her paralyzed foot (after a stroke) juts out of the skirt without any viable connection to the rest of her body. She seems much further away than any rational rendering of her hidden limbs would suggest, and the sofa on which she reclines is stretched inordinately to create a counter-thrust from left to right to the shape of the skirt which moves in from right to left. A tulle or French lace curtain almost like a shroud or a hospital curtain surrounds her across the whole breadth of the picture space, and her pallid breast-plate underscores her unflattering features, topped off by jet black hair which juts into the curtain shape, once more the only part of her to be given detailed treatment.
The brushy green base to the chaise-longue anchors the image to the surface in the left bottom corner, providing a foil for her distracted expression. It is a masterpiece which looks forward to such pictures by Matisse as the early sketches for The Large Blue Dress 1937 (Philadelphia), or Large Cliff – Two Rays 1920 (Florida), though lacking Manet’s bleakness, and of course Picasso’s portraits of Dora Maar are also looming in the wings.
Time and again one is reminded of just how much Matisse and Picasso too were emboldened by Manet to assert their so different personalities. The portrait of Jeanne Duval is perhaps the acid test for devotees of cultural sub-texts, hidden meanings, psychological states, since Baudelaire’s relationship to his mulatto mistress had by the time this painting was begun, deteriorated; following her stroke she was ill, and the poet may have commissioned the painting as a kind of memento mori – how do we know all this from the painting? The answer is, we don’t. All we can detect is an uneasy sense of impending mortality perhaps, and this is carried by imponderables in Manet’s command of colour.
I have admired this painting (in reproduction) for a long time for the sorts of formal drama, and the unusual lateral spread of its composition, without knowing anything of this biographical background. The catalogue stretches credibility by claiming (fashionably, echoing the “new art history”) that it “illustrates Baudelaire’s contention that the modern woman is beautiful only if attired in the highest fashion”. This preoccupation with a personal ideal of contemporary fashion is a norm of European portraiture, and in no way singles Manet out.
Jeanne Duval is neither beautiful (in any conventional sense) nor is the way her dress is depicted indicative of high fashion. Like so many of Manet’s paintings, almost in spite of himself, his unconscious greatness, his vision, lies in the projection, through actors who seem in rapt self-absorption, of a durée (Bergson), frozen in time, as those who are aware that they are being painted in fact are. But through this enforced immobility, they are encouraged to reflect on their appearance as nowhere else – and it is this condition of artist and subject (and we never see the sitter except as seen by the artist) that engenders the poetic mood which flows from Manet’s greatest paintings – supremely in The Balcony 1868-69 (Museé D’ Orsay).
So, why is Manet considered (by some) the founder of modernism in painting, where others, like Corot or Cézanne have been proposed? – apart from the fascination he holds for those great painters who succeeded him, and were inspired by him to assert their sovereignty over plebeian reality?
He brings the past alive in his paintings by calling up memories of other painters as if they lived in a dream-time continuum – “Yes, this half-peeled lemon was painted this way by Chardin, that way by Vermeer – this pitcher was painted this way by Chardin, that way by Velasquez, this dog this way by Velasquez, that way by Reynolds, another by Courbet, and here, now it is painted in the light that falls on it in my time, under refreshed circumstances of vividness”.
And as Patrick Heron says of Picasso – “We often have the feeling, before his pictures, that here is a painting at a remove, as it were, in consciousness; that this painter is not presenting his awareness of any subject so much as his awareness of that awareness!… The perfect marriage of fantasy and reality, the co-existence of the poetic and the purely pictorial in a single gesture of paint – that is everywhere the miracle of Picasso… By a special alchemy, Picasso creates plastic facts which give off poetry direct, for the simple reason that poetry was present at there conception, directly determining their plastic character” (Heron 1946 – in Painter as Critic, Tate.)
And it is so with Manet also. That mood of rapt vacancy which emanates from the faces of so many of his sitters is an unconscious projection of “the poetry that was present at there conception”, stemming from Manet’s own unconscious feeling for the eternal present in duration, as he felt it, and as his touch was able to register it. Both Courbet and Manet, through their purported “realist” convictions, do however manage to convey darker emotional truths about their sitters and about themselves, though to define how this happens is to enter the unfathomable link between the psychology of the artist and involuntary aspects of the synaptic link between sight and touch, emotion and technical means, which ultimately constitute the artist’s style. Our only evidence is in the work itself, and our ability intuitively to read it.
It is, as has often been said, because it is “pure painting”, pure intuition, the visual world in presentment unencumbered by the sorts of, yes, extra-pictorial “meanings” which the literary mind so loves to uncover or project; pure painting, in which the painter has sovereignty in “the humble transcription in terms of paint, of sensation itself” that it actually is a true reflection of the times in which it was conceived, and that it is able to continue to speak to new generations, that it enters the conversation of pictorial spirit.
There are aspects of modernism which of course challenge this nexus of values, but Manet’s art is a permanent reminder that the complex constructions of cerebral compulsiveness, the ploddings of so called “realism”, or indexes of socio-political advance in mores and life-style, however “modernistic” they may consider themselves to be, are likely to be, in spite of themselves less a true reflection of their times than an indictment of it. They have missed the message. Manet emphasises that the continuity of painting, the continuity of value in life, is made apparent if the artist finds and holds on to his own mode of vision, trusting his own eyesight and his “convictions of taste”, influenced as they inevitably will be by the passing show, and the march of “history”.
Not because it is painting about painting only, although it certainly is that, but because by responding to the refreshed light of our own day (as the innovations of past painters have enabled us to see it, and through whom we do see it in part, if we have the vision for it, unprejudiced, without animus) we see an intuition of the present moment (in the light of contemporary day) sub specie aeternitas, the only access on eternity we are ever going to have. It is only painting that can do this; that is what painting is for, and that is why the literary mind seeks either to cannibalise it or undermine it.
Alan Gouk, 3rd of February 2013
Manet: Portraying Life is on at Royal Academy until the 14th of April