My love affair with Édouard Manet, who was born on this day in 1832, is now decades in the making—dating back to my very first high school art history course, when the teacher showed a slide of the artist’s 1863 masterpiece, Olympia, and asked how it felt to be “the John.”
Manet’s use of a canonical Titian composition to confront the viewer with contemporary issues, particularly the epidemic of prostitution in Paris, captivated me instantly and incited an insatiable appetite for Manet’s brush.
While studying in London, I made weekly pilgrimages to the Courtauld to visit Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère from 1882 (which visited the Getty a few years back). I’d spend hours in front of the monumental canvas—the last of the artist’s great career—debating the presence or absence of the mirror; the implications of her outstretched hands (à la the Virgin Mary) lined up with the other wares, as though she was as much for sale as the Bass Pale Ale; and, above all, her bemused expression, which, for me, held far more mystery than the smile of the famed Mona Lisa.
Whatever city I find myself in, seeking out their Manet is always on my itinerary. In Paris, it’s Olympia and Dejeuner sur l’herbe (1863) at the Musee d’Orsay; in New York, Woman with a Parrot (1866) at the Met; in D.C., the Tragic Actor (1866) at the National Gallery; and in Los Angeles, it’s the Rue Mosnier with Flags (1878) at the Getty Museum.
At first blush, it’s a seemingly standard patriotic parade scene. It is, in fact, a depiction of the Fête de la Paix (Celebration of Peace), the national holiday on June 30th that celebrated France’s recovery from the disastrous Franco-Prussian War and the equally catastrophic Paris Commune that followed. Manet’s rendition is seemingly the picture of patriotism: French flags—whose bright red, white, and blue are enhanced by the purposeful juxtaposition to a nearly all-white architectural setting—gently billowing above a picturesque French street drenched in a heavenly light.
And yet, Manet’s narrative is anything but a nationalistic battle cry.
The most poignant detail of the composition is a very small figure at the lower left, an amputee struggling down the street, past a yard of rubble, with only his crutches and not a soul to lend a hand. Whether he’s a beggar or a veteran, we can’t be certain, but it’s clearly a bold criticism of the government’s bombastic celebration in the face of persistent poverty and suffering.
For me, it’s Manet at his best: beautiful, poignant, and melancholy.