French painter Édouard Manet is perhaps best known for his large scale paintings like Olympia and Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, both of which stoked controversy when they were first displayed. But in later life, with his health deteriorating, the artist shifted his focus to luscious still lifes, delicate pastels and watercolors, and portraits of social types like the parisienne or the dandy.
The exhibition Manet and Modern Beauty focuses on this often overlooked period of Manet’s career, from the late 1870s through his early death in 1883. In this episode, curators Emily Beeny and Scott Allan discuss key works from the exhibition and what they teach us about modernity and Manet.
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JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
SCOTT ALLAN: I think there are a lot of interesting frameworks for understanding these late works, but really what they boil down to for me is just the sheer pleasure that Manet had, the sheer joy he had in painting.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Getty curators Scott Allan and Emily Beeny about their exhibition, Manet and Modern Beauty.
The French painter, Edouard Manet, was born in Paris in 1832. His early career was marked by controversy when in 1863 he painted two pictures considered by many to be offensive in style and subject matter: Luncheon on the Grass, which depicts a frankly naked young woman sitting outdoors between two fully dressed young men; and Olympia, an even more challenging painting depicting a naked woman in bed turned towards us as her black servant enters the room with a luscious bouquet of flowers in her arms. These paintings made Manet’s reputation as a modern, avant-garde painter.
The exhibition Manet and Modern Beauty looks at a somewhat different painter. Drawn from the artist’s late career, from the mid-1870s until his death in 1883, the exhibition’s paintings and drawings feature intimate depictions of floral still lifes and finely dressed men and women in beer halls and public gardens.
To learn more about the exhibition, I spoke with its curators, the Getty Museum’s Emily Beeny and Scott Allan. We met in the exhibition’s galleries.
Emily and Scott, thank you so much for joining me this morning in the podcast, for the exhibition Manet and Modern Beauty. The exhibition begins with a painting of Manet by his friend, Henri Fantin-Latour. Tell us about this painting.
EMILY BEENY: So here we really have a portrayal of Manet near the beginning of his career, as a kind of Parisian dandy and gentleman. He’s dressed very dapperly with a top hat and a spiffy coat and vest and these sort of buff colored pants. He is gripping a cane in his hands, one of them bare, the other gloved. And I think really Fantin set out to underscore Manet’s personal elegance and charm, which I think a lot of critics during Manet’s early career maybe weren’t quite so aware of, because in the 1860s, of course, Manet is painting these provocative, confrontational pictures that he shows or tries to show at the annual state sponsored Salon.
CUNO: What were those pictures?
BEENY: So paintings like Luncheon on the Grass, the famous picnicking scene with the two fully dressed men seated beside a nude female picnicker. So that is rejected by the jury in 1863, shown at the adjacent Salon des Refusés to critical astonishment and bafflement in general.
CUNO: And what about the other painting, Olympia?
BEENY: So Olympia is shown at the Salon in 1865. It makes it past the jury, but then goes on to cause an enormous uproar. It’s essentially a reimagining of Titian’s Venus of Urbino in the guise of a contemporary Parisian prostitute and her attendant. So again, both in its rather broad handling and most especially in its shocking modern life subject, that painting really does scandalize Manet’s contemporaries.
CUNO: What was Fantin-Latour’s intention by this painting?
BEENY: Well, I think in exhibiting this picture at the Salon of 1867 Fantin really sought to publicize Manet’s gentlemanly persona—the fact that even those who found his painting scandalous often found the man himself, Manet himself, personally charming and genteel.
CUNO: And Fantin makes a clear point of his relationship by making it clear, his relationship to Manet, by inscribing on the painting, “A mon Ami Manet.”
BEENY: Exactly, yeah.
CUNO: So the painting is exhibited in 1867, is that right?
CUNO: Yeah, and that’s a time in which the term modern had some particular ideological meaning to it. So the exhibition is about modern beauty, so what is it about modern beauty? Why this painting? Because looking at this painting today, you’d see a man dressed in the highest fashion and that wouldn’t have been what one thought of when one thought of Baudelaire’s definition of modernity as a kind of rebellious position relative to society.
BEENY: The essay to which you refer by the poet Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life,” actually fashion plays a surprisingly large role in this essay. There’s a whole section of the essay that’s titled, Beauty, Fashion and Happiness, and I think that the reason why fashion is so important to Baudelaire’s definition of the painting of modern life is that fashion is a phenomenon that changes. And to paint modern life is to paint the world in a state of flux.
CUNO: So let’s walk over to this painting, a painting called Boating of 1874, 1875, and Scott, it’s the first picture that someone coming to the exhibition would see that was painted by Manet. Why this painting here in this part of the exhibition?
ALLAN: Well, we wanted to grab visitors’ attention right off the bat with one of the boldest and brightest Manet’s of the 1870s, a decade in which he’s really engaging closely with his impressionist friends.
What Manet is showing us here are two large scale figures at close range to us in a boat that dominates the whole bottom half of the picture, and that is, sort of, abruptly cropped by the picture’s framing edges. And this boat is positioned against this bright blue wall of water. There is no horizon line. This blue just fills the rest of the picture.
Dominating the center of the composition is a fashionable gentleman wearing a gleaming white boater’s outfit: white pants, white shirt, and a straw boater’s hat. He’s holding a tiller, he’s striking this very dynamic open pose, almost a slight caricature of masculinity, and then reclining at his knees across the boat is a woman in a loose flowing day dress that’s rendered in this kind of brilliant flurry of impressionistic brush strokes. And she’s sort of gazing ahead coolly, ignoring her companion.
So that’s the picture and I think when it was first shown by Manet at the 1879 Salon, he held it in a studio for a while and I think worked on it quite a bit, it really shocked his contemporaries for the brightness of its tonality and the boldness of its composition.
CUNO: Now it’s a painting that pretends to be a painting of some people out of doors, but it looks quite frankly like a painting that was painted in the studio to emulate figures that seem to be out of doors.
ALLAN: Yes, Manet’s so-called impressionist paintings are always “impressionist” in quotation marks. I mean they’re always studio contrivances and I think Manet delights in that contrivance and that artifice, and it’s one of the things that really distinguishes himself from the Impressionists who are doing landscape paintings that have some pretense to naturalness. The studio contrivances is evident in the setup and the way these figures are really kind of striking a social pose. It’s about social posturing in some way and about the performance of leisure activity in the suburbs rather than a simple natural inhabiting of that role. There’s a sense that these are models performing for the artists.
CUNO: There’s a painting over here, Emily, a portrait of Madame Manet, that is, of Manet’s wife, in the conservatory. So it’s an indoor painting painted in an outdoor setting. If you could describe the painting for us and the importance of this painting in his career.
BEENY: So this belongs to this very small group of pictures that Manet seems to have embarked on in the middle to late 1870s, portraying his models in the glassed-in winter garden conservatory, green house, if you will. It’s a bit of an indoor outdoor setting just as you say, and for many years we believed that Manet actually did paint these pictures or at least base them upon an actual greenhouse.
But mounting evidence suggests that these were actually also painted in Manet’s studio. An account of a visit to Manet’s studio in the middle ’70s in the Rue de Saint-Petersbourg mentions a green garden bench among the studio contents, and so there’s a little bit of a sense of his just having erected some potted plants behind this piece of studio furniture and made believe that we were in this conservatory setting. We do see other elements of the composition recycled in some of the other pictures from the group.
The likeness of Madame Manet herself, which for me is one of the most lovingly painted likenesses in Manet’s whole oeuvre, there’s something worthy of Holbein I think, about the way he’s painted his wife’s familiar features. So this likeness wearing this dark gray, maybe taffeta day dress, it actually is one of three pictures that he seems to have painted of her in this outfit. One is today in the collections of the Norton Simon Museum, one in the Metropolitan Museum, but this it comes to us from Oslo. This is the most finished of the three, despite the fact that the lower zone of the painting, her hands, for example, what appears to be a hat sitting beside her on the bench and perhaps a shawl of some kind draped over the back of the bench, that these are barely laid in. And this is something that we see in a lot of the late works. That sort of the lower portion of a portrait, the hands especially, will often be painted rather quickly, just barely suggested. It’s quite interesting I find.
CUNO: And you described it so beautifully as a tender painting, a tender portrait of his wife, tell us about the relationship between Manet and his wife and the history of that relationship.
BEENY: So Manet’s wife was named Suzanne Leenhoff, she was an accomplished pianist who came from the Netherlands, and she comes into the Manet household for the first time as actually a piano teacher to Manet and his brother. She does pose for Manet’s earliest ambitious history picture, and it is this very beautiful, sensuous Rubensian nude.
BEENY: And to me, what’s so wonderful about the portraits he makes of her later in life, is that we have a respectable bourgeois lady of middle years with no trace of the perhaps slightly more Bohemian beginnings of their relationship when she’s posing nude for him, when she is also an independent artist herself.
CUNO: Well, that picture of a woman in fashion if a day dress as you described it, but in fashion out of doors, was also picked up by another painting just around the corner over here. And Scott, if you can tell us about this painting, this painting of a woman by a skating rink, obviously dressed in high fashion at this time with kid gloves and a dress of some distinction.
ALLAN: This is an absolutely fascinating painting to me. In the foreground dominating the center of the picture is a woman, as you were saying, Jim, who’s very elegantly dressed with this sort of elaborately embroidered bodice. These gloves, it looks like she has a fur stole draped over her left arm. She’s wearing a very chic fur cap, all of which suggests a kind of a winter outdoor skating scene, but then there are other cues in the picture that suggests that in fact, this is an indoor skating rink.
You know, she’s dressed in what seems to be a winter ensemble, but if you look at the background, the very upper register, there’s what appears to be a decorative landscape with sailing boats and foliage evoking more sort of summer river time scene, which in conversations that Emily and I have had, we think it must be some kind of decorative panorama painting in one of these sort of newfangled improvised indoor skating rinks in Paris, which were all the craze in the mid-1870s. Manet is one of those artists, I mean, he’s really always very much of his moment and responsive to the fads and fashions of the day. And this painting was begun, we think around 1877, which was the very beginning of the roller skating craze in Paris. Ice skating had obviously been around for a long time and the first roller skates were I think pioneered in the late 18th century, but the first public roller skating rinks didn’t debut until the 1850s in London, 1860s in America, and 1870s in France.
So I like to think of this as an indoor roller skating rink. You can see right behind her, there is a kind of a balustrade with what looks to be a reddish-purple plush velvet covering of the railing, which would to me suggest one of these indoor places, and often around the rink there would be a promenoir for people to circulate and socialize and there would often be refreshment stands and musical entertainments, and so in many ways the picture like this actually anticipates Manet’s last masterpiece, the A Bar at the Folies-Bergère.
The main model I should say, is posed by Henriette Hauser, who was a very well-known courtesan at the time and was the model for Manet’s notorious Nana. And she’s presented very much in focus, but the whole background areas are rhythmic array of broken choppy brush strokes that really evokes the whirl and the motion of the figures on the skating rink.
CUNO: There’s some elements of the painting that make it seem as if he put them in very late to finish the composition. There is this head of a child in the lower left of the painting, but there’s also this figure, and I’m thinking it might be a younger woman but it could be a young man I suppose, coming around behind the figure dressed in a top hat and black coat. It just seems to be sketched in as if there was something in that part of the painting that needed an adjustment.
ALLAN: It’s interesting. There’s a lot of partial figures in this picture and it’s a bit of a puzzle and one has to look at it for an extended period of time. There’s this black silhouetted figure with the top hat along the very left edge, which almost functions like a stage flat in one of Degas’s paintings with these dancers beyond, and then just moving out behind his back is this sort of ghostly figure with hand tentatively outstretched. And then farther to the right, there’s a couple arm-in-arm it seems. We see them from behind moving towards the right, but their whole lower half is just a blur of painterly brushstrokes, so Manet is evoking this wonderful movement in the rink.
CUNO: Well, it’s a painting clearly of a type in the sense of painting types, social types, fashion types, whatever it might be. It’s also over here, and Emily, if you could help us with this painting, a painting called Plum Brandy, showing a woman sitting at a marble tabletop. But what I’m interested in is that we just went from a high dressed skater outside in a recreational setting, to an indoor setting of a woman looking very much like a working girl as a kind of a type. So what about this sense of type that he paints?
BEENY: Yeah, I love this painting. And one of the things that I love best is the sense, the poignant sense we have in this picture of the model’s dress is wearing her. [laughs] This fabulous pale pink confection of a dress that feels quite incongruous with the model’s melancholic pose, frankly, her bare hands, the fact that she isn’t wearing gloves, also the hat doesn’t really quite go with the dress. It’s like the bits sort of don’t add up. There’s something a little bit too fine about the dress given the elbows on the table, the unlit cigarette, the brandy soaked plum.
The fact that she’s drinking alone in public and also sitting there with ungloved hands in this kind of unguarded pose that sort of suggests exhaustion in a way, has led many observers just speculate that what Manet portrayed here, what he set out to portray, is essentially a prostitute awaiting her next client at a café. But what I love about this picture and what I think does set it apart somewhat from, for example, Degas similar scenes from about the same moment, is the lack of judgment of the subject. That we’re not invited to read this as a grim subject, we’re sort of invited to engage in an exercise in people watching. It feels very much like actually sitting at a cafe and watching a stranger and just wondering what her deal is.
CUNO: Now, there’s something about the composition of the painting where she’s sitting, as I said earlier, behind this marble-topped table, at this sense that this kind of framing device. When we looked at skating, she was also framed by that railing that was just behind her, and if we look to the right of this painting, and this woman reading, it’s once again a framed picture tightly compressed in its frame of a woman who’s in high dress now, looking at and reading a newspaper out of doors. The sense of even when he’s out of doors, he’s constantly framing the composition and the major figure within the composition.
BEENY: Absolutely. I think one of the really fun things we’ve noticed in unpacking the show, in opening the crates and putting things on the wall, is Manet’s very frequent practice actually of scraping into the wet paint, a kind of square viewing window that literally enframes the composition and that we think might have been a practice designed to guide the framer in how actually literally to frame the canvas.
But as you say, this absolutely is a picture all about framing in I think more ways than one. Certainly the composition is cropped at the left. We only get half of this woman’s frothy glass of beer. We only get part of the newspaper that she’s reading on a stick. But these two details signal to us that she is meant to be sitting probably at an outdoor cafe reading an illustrated, probably fashion journal.
I think the first sign that we have that maybe something isn’t quite right, that this isn’t actually a scene that Manet sketched on the fly at an outdoor cafe, which I think that the rapidity of the brushwork encourages us somehow to believe that this is a rapidly observed and sketched scene, but a clue that we have that that isn’t the case is the fact that the model is in winter clothing and she’s posed against this very sunlit landscape with a stretch of sunlit path, these two slender trees, these red flowers, all described with a dappled flurry of impressionistic brushstrokes.
Well, if we look actually at the painting that hangs in our exhibition beside this one, a portrait of a lady called Madame Gamby, there we see the very same two slender trees, the same red flowers, the same sunlit stretch of path. Both of these pictures we believe were actually staged in Manet’s studio in front of one of his own landscape paintings. And there’s an additional clue to that, I believe, in the painting of the woman reading this wonderful first picture from The Art Institute of Chicago. Just above the page of the reader’s newspaper, the top left portion of the composition, a series of golden vertical strokes, in my view, indicate what was once a picture frame. So that actually Manet had painted one of his own landscape scenes, a picture that’s called The Watering Can, and we do in fact see the remains of the watering can just behind the reader’s head, that he painted this picture, framed it, hung it on his studio wall, and then essentially used it as a flat of scenery before which to concoct these supposedly plein air scenes.
Painting was not easy for Manet, that Manet was a serial re-worker. Claude Monet, the great impressionist landscape painter who was a friend of course of Manet’s, once said about him, Manet wanted to make everything look as if it had been done at the first go. The phrase he uses is au premier coup, but at the end of each day, he would scrape down and start anew in the morning. So this impression of effortless mastery and ease that he does manage to convey in so many pictures is again, a carefully crafted and cultivated illusion.
CUNO: Yeah, now both these pictures, but particularly the one of the woman reading out of doors as you describe it, so clearly in this kind of freedom of brushstroke, it takes us to his working with pastel.
BEENY: Well, Manet begins producing pastels really in quantity at the end of the 1870s.
CUNO: What was that move about?
BEENY: Well, I think there are many contributing factors. So I think first of all, it’s worth remembering that Degas shows an important group of pastels at the third Impressionist exhibition in 1879, but also that Manet’s then sister-in-law, Berthe Morisot, the female founding member of the Impressionist movement, was also exhibiting important works in pastel. But maybe most important of all, I think in Manet’s move to pastels and particularly his move to working in pastel on canvas, which at this point is a rather peculiar procedure, I think is motivated actually by his own pupil. So the only person who actually inscribed herself as a pupil of Manet in the Salon Libre, was a female painter called Eva Gonzales. And she began studying with Manet in 1870. And she arrived in his studio already fully trained as a pastelist, having studied with Charles Chaplin who was really the foremost pastelist of the second empire in France, a sort of much more academic artist. And we do have pastels by her on pale gray fine weave canvas supports, very like those that Manet begins using at this moment.
CUNO: And was that because that he and she liked the way that the pastel crayon fixed itself to the canvas and the kind of texture of the canvas that would be seen through the pastel crayon?
BEENY: Exactly, I think so. I think they both enjoy the way that the texture of the weave breaks up the strokes of pastel to create these fascinating textures and graphic effects. One drawback to working on this canvas support is that when you take pastel and crumble it up and add water to it so that you can apply it with a brush like gouache, which is certainly something that Manet is doing, adhesion problems often arise. And so many of Manet’s pastels are unusually fragile even for pastels because the wet-applied medium does not stick as nicely to the support as it would have to blue paper.
CUNO: Why did Manet exhibited it or at least titled it The Drinker. Why is it again a type as opposed to just being a portrait of Alphonse Maureau?
BEENY: Yeah, that’s a great question. And it certainly is a pattern, especially in Manet’s earlier career of exhibiting what are clearly portrait likenesses but are meant in some way to typify different sorts of social characters, in this case, the drinker. Certainly, the persona of the drinker is also a way for Manet to gesture back to 17th century Netherlandish traditions, I think.
CUNO: So the pastel to the right of The Drinker is a portrait of Julien de la Rochenoire, is a pastel in our collection, purposely a portrait and not a type. Tell us about this pastel, about who he was and why he might’ve been attractive to Manet.
BEENY: Yes, so just to explain the difference between the way we’ve titled these two pastels, The Drinker is the title under which Manet exhibited the portrait of the Alphonse Maureau in 1880, whereas the Portrait of Julien de la Rochenoire does not have an early exhibition history, so we don’t know what Manet would have titled it.
But Julien de la Rochenoire, who was also a painter, specialized primarily in animal subjects. He’s what we call an animalier. And he and Manet went back a ways. La Rochenoire had gotten up an effort in 1872, to change the makeup of the Salon jury to liberalize the Salon jury by having more progressive painters serve on it.
The interesting thing I think about both of these pastels, having both of them here together, is that most of Manet’s pastels actually portray beautiful women in elegant clothes. And so it’s funny and interesting that we have these two portraits of male artists. The interesting thing I think about portraying these, not always so handsome men, I mean for me anyway, Alphonse is very handsome, Julian de la Rochenoire, perhaps a little bit less so, in the pastel medium, these dry powdery sticks of color, is that certainly by the 1870’s, pastel was a medium firmly associated with femininity, associated with female artists like Eva Gonzales, but also and especially with female sitters. So there’s something quite interesting about using this quintessentially female medium, from a 19th century perspective, this colored powder akin to makeup, to describe somebody who looks like Julian de la Rochenoire.
CUNO: Yeah. I want to go to another portrait over here of Antonin Proust, and Scott, maybe you could tell us about this, because this is a very different kind of portrait painting after those two pastels, something quite bold and large and— Tell us about who Antonin Proust was, his relationship to Manet, and why Manet painted this portrait at this time.
ALLAN: Antonin Proust was a very old friend of Manet’s. They were exact contemporaries, both born in 1832. And Proust and Manet, they, I mean, they had gone to school together. They had both been in Thomas Couture’s studio in the 1850s before Proust eventually embarked on a career in journalism and politics. By the time that Manet portrayed him in this picture, which was shown in the 1880 Salon, Proust was really a rising star in the Third Republic’s art administration, the state art administration of the day, and there was a lot of chatter about him being the next minister of fine arts in France. So Manet had, all of a sudden, a very powerful political ally, who had a really determining impact on Manet’s late career and also posthumous reception.
In 1881, Proust does become minister of fine arts and one of his first official acts is to have Manet inducted into the Legion of Honor, an award that under previous regimes would have been completely unthinkable. So that was a very public declaration that Manet’s time had arrived and that all of a sudden critics were a little dumbfounded that they were in this perverse situation of Manet becoming a kind of official artist even, of the Third Republic. And who would’ve thought that the avant-garde rebel of the 1860s was now tight with officials in the corridors of power? And for conservatives, they thought, oh my goodness, you know there are these revolutionary changes afoot within the establishment and what does this mean for the future of French art and culture? You know, Manet is in charge now. [laughter] And like, “My God, it’s the end of the world.”
For me, this is a really fascinating painting that, you know, within the context of the genre official portraits of prominent politicians, it’s in some ways very much of a type. You know, it is, in the context of Manet’s oeuvre, one of his more “conservative” paintings. These frontal three-quarter length presentation of a frock-coated male against a dark, nondescript brownish background. These things were fairly conventional. But within those confines, Manet manages to inject a level of color and liveliness, and also painterly expression that was uncommon for the genre and that we are perhaps a little bit less alert to today, but that viewers at the time very much recognized. The frock coat for instance, had a degree of blue in it, blue tonality to it, which was very much in keeping with Manet’s reputation as a friend of the Impressionists.
The level of blonde lighting in his face, there’s a level of illumination there which suggests a kind of a daylight plein air aesthetic, even though this is clearly a studio composition. And there’s also a dandyish presentation, which is a little unconventional for a staid official political portrait. In such portraits, the man would have his top hat off. He would be posed formally. Whereas Proust, it appears like he’s just popping by the studio. He still got his hat on, he’s just come out from the boulevard, he’s leaning on his walking stick, his one glove is off, one is still on, and then he’s got this rose boutonniere, which clearly identifies him as this sort of dandyish figure, perhaps something of a ladies’ man like Manet himself.
CUNO: The portrait of Antonin Proust is a big bold painting and it required a great deal of physical exertion, but I know that his health wasn’t so good at the time. Tell us about that.
ALLAN: Well, I think it was really around 1879 that he first really started manifesting some of the stronger effects of the tertiary syphilis, which would ultimately claim his life in 1883. He started having these shooting pains in his leg, he started dragging a leg. Walking around, his mobility became increasingly difficult over the course of the early 1880s, and this really in some ways threatened his most dearly held social persona as a flaneur, as a man about town, as the boulevard dandy. And all of a sudden, Manet is having a hard time walking any distance down the street. And increasingly in the last few years, he’s kind of confined to the studio, confined to the apartment, and then pursuing treatments and rest cures in the suburban outskirts of Paris.
And he does that in the summer of 1880, the summer of 1881, the summer of 1882. And so his whole social routine is upended. And it really does affect his production, both in terms of the subjects he paints, the genres he concentrates on. All of a sudden we see a lot more still life and garden pictures as a result of some of these periods of suburban exile, and in terms of the sheer dimensions of his work, as you mentioned, you know major Salon paintings at the ’60s and ’70s, these are big grand productions that require a lot of physical effort and as you walk through the show here at the Getty, you’ll get a sense of the diminution that happens. We start with some of the larger scale work, the large scale figure paintings, and then we end up with some absolutely beautiful, very delicate works on paper and small still life paintings.
And it’s that smaller, more intimate private side of Manet is what we’re really trying to highlight in the show. It’s a less familiar side of the artist. A lot of those works are still in private hands and we hope that those works will be a real discovery for visitors.
CUNO: Yeah, let’s look at them, because they are paintings, both oil paintings and watercolors, that are intimate paintings and paintings that are made for a friend either on letters, ornament letters, or just single paintings. For example, this painting of a single asparagus,.
ALLAN: It’s one of the most wonderful anecdotes I think in Manet’s biography. So around the late 1870s and 1880s, the small circle of collectors who were interested in Manet’s work was slowly starting to expand, and one of the key figures, who was a great collector and also an art historian and critic, was a man named Charles Ephrussi from a prominent banking family. And he purchased the painting of the bundle of white Argenteuil asparagus from Manet in 1880 for, I think that the price was 800 francs, but Ephrussi loved the painting so much that he paid Manet a 200 franc bonus. He paid 1000 francs for that painting.
And in a gentlemanly gesture of gratitude, Manet painted the single stalk of asparagus and sent it to Charles with a note saying there was one missing from your bunch. So Manet is pretending to be the fair-minded grocer who doesn’t want to short change his customer. This dynamic really suggests how what was a simple commercial transaction becomes a delightful social exchange between two gentlemen, and that was just so Manet to use art as a social glue.
And it’s that context of social exchange that I think is most vividly felt in some of his little still life paintings of fruits and flowers, because many of them were painted in response to gifts that were given to him, bouquets of flowers or gifts of mandarin oranges and what have you. And then he would in turn give one of these paintings to friends, admirers in the way that you would give an actual bouquet of flowers. So there is a social context for these works.
CUNO: Now, it’s too tempting to read something more into these late paintings, these still life paintings, but the sense of loneliness as opposed to the exuberance of the gardens setting paintings that we began this conversation with, is there any kind of melancholy in these paintings?
ALLAN: I hesitate to say that but given what we know about Manet’s life circumstances in the last couple of years, it’s very hard not to project on to some of these paintings that sense that he’s focused at the very end on these natural specimens that are fragile, ephemeral, the beauty is fleeting, they’re seasonal. They rot and die. And he is defying his own mortality by immortalizing these fragile ephemeral beauties and painting, and that’s a very appealing way to read these late works. And I think there is some truth to it, but there is also a collector market and there’s a tradition of still life painting that Manet is inserting himself into. In some of the small piles of apples and oranges and peaches and strawberries that Manet paints, are very much direct homage to Chardin and an 18th century tradition of French still life painting.
I think there are a lot of interesting frameworks for understanding these late works, but really what they boil down to for me is just the sheer pleasure that Manet had. The sheer joy he had in painting. And these small, late still lives are in some ways the purest distillations of his work as a painter, working for the love of painting in his entire oeuvre.
CUNO: Yeah, Emily, maybe you can tell us about this, in these little watercolor illustrations that he adds to letters that he writes to friends or to acquaintances, the sense of a kind of isolation that he can communicate with his friends only by letter while he’s away in the suburbs, and he decorates and ornaments them with a lightest touch, often with pieces of flowers that have been plucked from their source of life and are destined to die. In this case, there’s a letter decorated with a snail on a leaf and the snail is going to be eating a hole in the leaf and the leaf has been plucked from its tree.
BEENY: That’s a very dark reading [laughter] of what I must say that I take as a very sunny little object. All of these letters are sent from Bellevue, so this suburban spa town where Manet’s spends basically his first summer of medical exile in 1880. So between June and November, he’s there. And for me, these watercolors are all about putting a smiling face on a situation of tremendous pain and isolation. That these are charming gifts for his friends that he folds into envelopes and puts into the mail. And, I mean, for me what’s so amazing is to imagine sitting at the breakfast table and opening an envelope and finding one of these astonishing little paintings, really, inside. My sense is that Manet might’ve been a little bit upset by such a gloomy construction on these objects, that I think he really did intend simply to beguile and delight their recipients.
CUNO: Well, let’s then bring ourselves into the sunlight again [laughter] and that is with this great beautiful painting that we acquired recently, and that is I think one of the stars if not the star of the exhibition, and that is this Spring (Jeanne), because this is a complicated picture that shows a sense of vitality of a vigorous painter at work on a canvas, and then it’s spring. Tell us about the context of this painting and with the other that’s related to in the exhibition.
ALLAN: This was one of the most successful paintings of Manet’s entire Salon career. He exhibited the painting in 1882, his final Salon, just a year before he died, and it was a painting that charmed all of the critics. And it was really Manet’s subject that charmed the critics.
What he’s given us here is ostensibly a portrait of a young model who later became a fairly well-known actress, named Mademoiselle Demarsy, but really he’s presenting her as a social type. As we were discussing earlier, Manet was very much interested in encapsulating certain modern social types, in this case, the chic fashionable young, pretty Parisienne, who in some ways emblematizes modern Paris and its elegant world of fashion.
He presents her in this wonderful spring ensemble, this white day dress flecked with all of these little floral touches, these long suede gloves, she has a lace-fringed parasol. The parasol, the canopy portion, one critic described as sort of as sort of perfectly cafe au lait in color, and then she’s wearing this wonderful bonnet with some probably artificial flowers attached to the top and she’s shown in profile against the shallow backdrop of flowering rhododendrons under this brilliant bright blue sky.
And the painting is up-to-the-minute in its fashion and its sense of modernity and its social type, but Manet was also looking back to things like aristocratic portraiture of the Italian 16th century. Manet, especially at this point in his career, when his health is failing seriously, he is starting to think more and more about his posterity, his place in the museum, and there’s something that if you read Zola’s art criticism, he often invo— uses spring and particularly the notion of an eternal spring, to talk about art that really survives the test of time and that maintains its vitality into the future.
And so I think there’s, the central paradox of a picture like this is that Manet is really aiming to create a truly enduring icon of a fashionable notion of beauty in his day, but he wants to have it both ways for it to be up-to-the-minute contemporary, but also stand the test of time and appeal for the ages.
CUNO: Yeah. Now you describe this picture in the catalog as part of a seasons project. What was that seasons project about?
ALLAN: We still wish we knew a little bit more about the exact circumstances of this. What we know is this. This painting was exhibited not in the context of a decorative series on the seasons, but alone with the title simply Jeanne.
CUNO: A woman’s name.
ALLAN: A woman’s name. And we know that Manet’s good friend, Antonin Proust, purchased the painting quite early on, near the very beginning of the Salon in 1882. And we have it on Proust’s authority and some other contemporary commentators that Manet intended this painting to be part of a decorative series on the theme of the four seasons in which each season would be emblematized by a pretty Parisian woman. In the end, he only produced one other painting in this anticipated series, and that was Autumn, which we’ve been able to reunite with Jeanne, also known as Spring, for this exhibition.
They haven’t been seen together in about 40 years, so we’re very privileged and honored to have this painting from the Musée des Beaux-arts in Nancy in Eastern France here with us at the Getty. This picture portrays a slightly older woman than, Jeanne was still in her teenage years when Manet depicted her for Spring. But this represents Méry Laurent, who was in her early thirties, I believe, and I just— This is such a wonderful picture. Manet shows her in this dark fur coat. She’s got her hands in a fur muff, and she’s shown against this brilliant blue background sprinkled with these chrysanthemum motifs, a fall blooming flower. And the story is that Manet’s good friend, Antonin Proust, the first owner of Jeanne, provided the Japanese robe that served as the backdrop for this portrait.
CUNO: So it is an extraordinary and striking portrait, but who exactly was Méry Laurent?
BEENY: So Méry Laurent was the daughter of a laundress from Nancy, who began her career on the stage in Paris while still a teenager and retired from the stage at age twenty-five in order to be kept in really quite grand style by an American dentist, Thomas Evans, who had actually made his fortune at the court of Napoleon III, where in addition to being a dentist, he was a major real estate speculator during Haussmannization. In any event, Evans buys a house for Méry Laurent on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne, and there she entertains regularly musicians, most all of the great writers of her era as well as artists, whose work she collects and most especially whose work she encourages Dr. Evans to collect. So she grants Manet entrée into her glamorous social world of other actresses in demimondaines and their wealthy lovers. She helps produce the market for Manet’s late pastel portraits and also for his flower paintings.
CUNO: Well that brings us to the very last years of his life, the last couple of years of his life and the last paintings in the exhibition. So let’s look at the still life paintings.
So we’re in a gallery, the last gallery of the exhibition, surrounded by these still life paintings of cut flowers and what I assume to be crystal vases, and I always have loved the charm as well as the complexity of painting these paintings because there’s like a container of cut glass or a crystal, within which there is water, and then within the water there are the stems of the flowers, and the light has to penetrate all of that, but yet not lose the distinction between the elements that comprise the still life. So they seem to be tremendously challenging.
ALLAN: I completely agree. For me, the paint handling in these vases is really the ultimate. [laughs] In terms of Manet’s talent as a painter, one of the things that’s really become apparent as we’ve brought the works together for the show and examined them and studied them is this complicated layer structure of Manet’s paintings.
CUNO: Physical layers structure?
ALLAN: Physical layers structure. You know, there’s this kind of cliched notion of Manet as this very spontaneous alla prima painter, just blank canvas, quick brush strokes as Emily was evoking earlier, but it’s much more complicated in that he the scrapes constantly. He lets a lot of exposed ground do a lot of work for him. He can be very economical in his means. And in these vases especially, there is a dance between opaque touches of paint and areas left and reserved, areas of exposed ground, areas where there’s just maybe a thin, delicate wash of paint. So there is a three dimensional layer structure that he manages to maintain in a nice loose, open way, to capture some of that visual complexity that you’re evoking between solid and liquid, front and back, interior, exterior, solid and void, transparency and opacity, to convey the complexity of light’s action through this vase with all of the complicated bits of plant matter and floral material in those vases. And you know he sort of skirts the edge of legibility so often that it’s sort of tantalizing to get up close and try to puzzle out what’s happening with these vases and they’re just magnificent pieces of painting.
CUNO: Yeah, who were they painted for? For the market or for friends?
ALLAN: The answer is both. In fact, it was sort of a small circle of collector friends really who were buying these things. And if you look in Manet’s sales book, a transcription of which fortunately survives, if you look at the entries for 1880, 1881, 1882, flower paintings really account for, I don’t know, half of the entries. It’s a lot, and it’s a small number of collectors who are buying them for pretty decent prices. 200, 300, 400, 500 francs, depending. So it is a commercial breakthrough for Manet in his career with these flower paintings.
But as I was saying earlier, they’re also part of his social world where the giving and receiving of flowers is everyday social currency. And we know that some of these collectors who were commissioning flower paintings would bring Manet flowers. They would sometimes furnish the vase that they bought in a nearby shopping arcade and a fashionable, Chinoiserie or Japanese vase. And then sometimes it was people bringing Manet flowers, because you know he’s ailing and it was a form of well-wishing, and so he painted those too. And in some cases a few cases, he gave flower paintings as gifts to women of his acquaintance as a new year’s gift or you know a gesture of admiration. But mostly he sold them, and he sold them quickly. They flew off the easel is the impression that I have.
CUNO: Yeah, there is something that’s both is mournful about these paintings to the end of his career that they’re cut flowers in vases and something quite spontaneously beautiful and robust about them too. So there isn’t a simple end of a life.
ALLAN: There’s a lot of contradictory things happening in these flower paintings. And one thing that really struck me, when you see these in person, these canvases are mostly about 55 centimeters tall, not huge, but since the scale of the vase and the flowers is quite large in a way, they really fill the picture plane, they have tremendous wall presence and are indeed very robust, even though they are describing these very delicate and ephemeral natural beauties. And in some ways they’re also the perfect summation of Manet’s whole career as a painter. There’s a brilliant luminosity and intensity and real celebration of color in these flower paintings, but he sets them against these thin, brownish, often very dark backgrounds for the most part, and that evokes Manet’s more academic beginnings in Thomas Couture’s studio where laying in a brown sauce was part of the sketch technique and preparing a canvas.
And Manet uses that to brilliant effect here because it just offsets the beauty of the flowers ever more dramatically and also connects these works to a kind of an old master tradition. They’re very lively and impressionist, but Manet is clearly also thinking of a longer tradition of still life painting and appealing, frankly, to collectors whose tastes weren’t quite as adventurous as his. Manet is also adjusting to a market here as well, and I mean the sense is that a lot of these collectors who are Manet’s friends often bought works from him more out of personal solidarity than a fierce advocacy for his style. Their selection of Manet’s work with some anomalous and in some of their collections, which also included the work of more conservative artists. So I think there’s an interesting conversation happening between Manet and his collectors with works like these.
CUNO: Yeah, well, Scott and Emily, it’s a fantastic exhibition which will break new ground in our understanding of the career of Manet and of his accomplishment as a painter. It’s also a very pointed and beautiful exhibition. So congratulations and thanks for the time of the podcast.
ALLAN: Thank you.
BEENY: Thanks so much.
CUNO: Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts. Thanks for listening.
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
SCOTT ALLAN: I think there are a lot of interesting frameworks for understanding these late works...