After Manet: The Wife, the Fish, and the Philosopher

Published January 31, 2020 on Degree Critical.

Édouard Manet, Madame Manet, (1876). Oil on canvas, 23 7/8 x 20 inches. Norton Simon Art Foundation, Gift of Mr. Norton Simon, Pasadena, California.

She had fair and healthy skin, slightly red on the cheeks, and flawlessly taut around the eyes. Her aquiline nose was the most prominent feature of her face, protruding over shapely lips. Brown eyes, light like unripened almonds, were half-covered by sleepy eyelids, and framed subtly by modest brows. The morning sunlight gleamed through a window, adding gloss to her lustrous brown hair. Madame Suzanne Manet looked at herself in the mirror, and approved.

She looked at her hair, piled in a fashionable style atop her head. She wore a white, high-necked, lace collar, a sparkling gold necklace, and her charcoal gray dress adorned with a large bow across her full chest. Her gaze then wandered lower, just as it did when she sat as a model for her husband, the painter Édouard Manet, which she’d done many times for studies for different paintings. She remembered a time in 1876 when she posed for him for a study of In the Conservatory (1879), the portrait of their family friends Mr. and Mrs. Guillemet. The light was similarly soft and bright that day as she sat comfortably on the chair in his studio crammed with canvases and painting supplies, and tinged with a slight scent of poppy seed oil. Even though Édouard was always kindhearted by nature and supremely talented, he could be insufferable to his models. Continuously dissatisfied, he was never able to consider his paintings finished, and so made them sit in unending stillness as he worked, and re-worked his canvases. As their dear friend Antonin Proust recorded, Édouard once told him: “There is just one real thing. To get down what one sees at the first shot. When it’s there, it’s there. When it’s not there, one starts over. Everything else is nonsense.”[1] That day in 1876 at his studio on 77 rue de Saint-Pétersbourg, when he painted the study called Madame Manet, wasn’t quite as maddening, as she recalled. He must have gotten down what he saw. Even though the final painting seemed half done, with faint brushstrokes and parts of the canvas barely covered, there were in fact numerous, transparent layers of paint. He had studied her skin tones and the kindness in her eyes. Her features and figure, she found, were expressed intricately and endearingly. He captured the shimmery light about her head.

Installation view of Manet: Three Paintings from the Norton Simon Museum; photo: George Koelle.

Édouard had incredible abilities as a painter. He came from a prosperous family in Paris, and it was in his family’s house where they first met in 1849, when she was 19 and he 17. “Keen, intelligent eyes, a restless mouth turning ironic now and again,” his friend the writer Émile Zola would say, “the whole of his expressive, irregular face has an indefinable finesse and vigor about it.”[2] He was already talented and inspired, learning to paint from the master Thomas Couture, as a copyist at the Louvre. Édouard soon transcended Couture, and his painting evolved. As the 1860s approached and the Impressionist movement came to rule the Parisian art scene and the Salon, Édouard became a solitary figure. Throughout his life, he never partook in the Impressionist exhibitions, but nor was he a self-proclaimed realist, like his friend Gustave Courbet was in those years. Édouard was unmatched; his art would someday inspire generations of artists, though this fact was surely unknown to Madame Manet then.

“So many treasures in a single female—monstrous, isn’t it?”[3] She remembered with a smile the words of their friend the poet Charles Baudelaire about her when she and the painter married in 1863. The same year, Édouard exhibited two works, the scandalous Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia, another infamous portrait of a nude that he had finished two years earlier. Madame Manet knew these two paintings were the most important works he had yet comlpeted and that he had succeeded in showing something the art world had never before seen. She saw in the eyes of the viewers at the Salon des Refusés that her husband had created a new form of reality by marrying together his competence, a romantic pastoral atmosphere, and ways of modern Parisian living. In Luncheon, he rendered the contemporary clothing of the men, the naked skin of the prostitutes, and their green, natural surroundings in fidelity to Courbet’s realism, and he used such an unusual technique of perspective in constructing his scenery that he made this disturbing, scandalous reality of “modern” life even more visible. By depicting a complacent prostitute in the background, disproportionate in size to the central characters of the painting, he chose to bring to highlight not only a visually inappropriate perspective, but a socially unacceptable one, too. Both Édouard’s wit and brushstrokes were bold, and they never seemed to be anything else––even when he painted still lifes.

As Madame Manet entered her kitchen, she noticed two medium-sized, shiny fish from the market resting on white wrapping paper, their scaly bodies reflecting the soft light like silver and bronze. “Maybe parsley,” she thought, noticing the bunches of fresh herbs on which they lay, and then her gaze met the pale yellow, dead eye of a salmon. She could see the unique grid of scales under its belly, glistening with bright whites, oranges, ochres, grays. The needlefish behind it was darker, mostly black and silver, its long, narrow beak resting on the table. Next to the plate, four small shrimps, carelessly tossed, were scattered, their soft, white and pink skins glittering. The sea creatures were vivid and glossy in accordance with their aquatic origins, and contrasted with the dark, earthy brown of the wooden table, and the shadows surrounding it.

Édouard Manet, Fish and Shrimp (1864) Oil on canvas, 17 5/8 x 28 3/4 inches. Norton Simon Art Foundation, Pasadena, California.

She remembered the days she and her painter had spent together in 1864 with Édouard’s family in Boulogne-sur-Mer, a small seaside town in the North of France. Their vacation had involved little peace, the opposite of a tranquil holiday retreat, for those were the days of rapid change throughout France. The Industrial Revolution filled the waters with loud ships and their smoking funnels, the town with crowds of busy tourists, and the port with non-stop bustle. She liked the countryside and these little trips away from the city, these little moments enriched by sun and the fresh, saline smell of the coast. Her husband, though fascinated by the steamships, painted their opposite during this trip—a series of quiet still lifes. The seafood atop her table reminded her of one of these: Fish and Shrimp (1864), painted on a small canvas that was eventually sent to Louis Martinet’s gallery in Paris’s Boulevard des Italiens. The painting featured a pair of fish on a fishmonger’s paper and shrimps just like these, every detail of light and contrast of color working in precision. To the academics this genre was boring and lowly in hierarchy, could not show real talent, and as Madame Manet thought smirking, was too much like  the “feminine” subgenre of flower paintings for these men. Even though still life painting was looked down upon, it was both an act of joy and a demonstration of painterly skill for Édouard. He had once told his friend, the painter Charles Toché, “A painter can say all he wants to say with fruit or flower or even clouds,” and that he “should like to be the St. Francis of still life.”[4] Édouard had the skill to transform a still life into an embodiment of light and color in their highest form, to give soul to the material of oil paint on canvas, so much so that even the most discerning critics had praised these paintings of his. Zola once called her husband “one of the most energetic instigators of pure painting,”[5] and Madame Manet could see what he meant in every brushstroke of Fish and Shrimp. Each single scale that covered the underbelly of Édouard’s salmon, the tones of green, the deathly pale hue of the fisheyes who had ceased to see were translated into art by her painter. They became pure painting.

Édouard searched the past and present for what made a painting “pure,” inspired by other artists and makers from around him and beyond. He and Madame Manet were friends with intellectuals who painted, read, and wrote; they frequented cafés and bars like the Café Guerbois on Avenue de Clichy or La Nouvelle Athénes on Place Pigalle to eat, drink, and stimulate each other as the later-famous “Batignolle Group.” The painter listened to his friends and his city. The current renovation of Paris under Georges-Eugène Haussmann affected everyone, including his Batignolle friends, with its ever-changing scenery and smoke-coated skies, altering social and cultural structure along with its riverbanks and streets. Édouard absorbed everything, took it with him into his studio, and turned his impressions into paintings. He did the same when he was inspired by art, whether it was ancient engravings or the works of Francisco Goya. His genius was skillful pastiche in the most glorious, creatively inspiring sense.

More than any other artist, he admired the Spanish master Diego Velázquez, whose paintings he encountered for the first time at the Museo del Prado in 1865, during a trip to Madrid. Transfixed, Édouard said of Velázquez’s work he “discovered in him the fulfillment of my own ideals in painting; the sight of those masterpieces gave [him] enormous hope and courage.”[6] Madame Manet remembered his excitement when he returned to Paris; it had been impossible to soothe him. Working in his studio for days and months after his trip, she also remembered the time she first saw the results of these labors, the series of paintings he called “Four Philosophers” when he proposed them for sale to Durand-Ruel in 1871. Of the quartet, The Ragpicker (1865-71) stood out in Madame Manet’s mind as particularly Velázquezian, modeled as it was after the Spanish artist’s portraits of the philosophers Mennipus and Aesop.

For Édouard, beggars and outcasts were the true philosophers of Paris, abandoned, displaced, and pushed out to the outskirts of Haussmann’s elegant new capital. The ragpickers, who scavenged in the streets at night collecting discarded pieces of cloth to sell and recycle, especially captured his imagination. Baudelaire and many others felt similarly sympathetic about these men, that they were mythical bearers of wisdom like the Diogenes of Sinope: “Stumbling, bumping into walls like a poet, / …He takes oaths, dictates sublime laws, / …He becomes drunk on the splendors of his own virtues,” as Baudelaire wrote in his 1857 book of poetry, The Flowers of Evil.

Manet ragpicker
Édouard Manet, The Ragpicker (1867–71, possibly reworked in 1876–77). Oil on canvas, 76 3/4 x 51 1/2 inches. The Norton Simon Foundation, Pasadena, California.

Édouard’s Ragpicker, an old man in worn, dirty clothes and a hat that had seen better days, dominated a six-foot tall canvas, almost heroic in its scale. He held a stick in one hand and his rag sack in the other. An unkempt, gray beard ensnarled his wrinkled face. His hands were a workingman’s and his torn pants and begrimed, baggy shirt hung from his meager frame. In Édouard’s painting a small pile of trash sat at the man’s feet but other than that there was nothing else to be seen, the background without a horizon blacked out, and only the ragpicker, illuminated in glory. Madame Manet saw the many layers of oil color and notion piled up on the canvas, behind the paint and over the philosopher’s clothes, and understood that at its core this painting represented the thoughtful wit of its maker. Borrowing from Velázquez, and in fidelity to his sage ragpicker, Édouard, the master pasticheur, recycled the Spanish painter’s ideal to become his own. The scraps of society found renewed value on Édouard’s canvas, so exalted they were now fit to adorn the walls of museums.

As Madame Manet gathered her thoughts around these three paintings—her portrait, the ragpicker’s portrait, and the still life with fish and shrimp—she imagined them on the walls of an elegant museum in the future, far from Paris. They were all so different from each other in technique and genre, yet united in flawless harmony by Édouard’s perfectly pure painting. Madame Manet could close her eyes and see clearly the maze-like halls of a museum built in the future, her portrait hanging on a burgundy wall beside the others, sharing its gallery with past and modern masters. Her husband’s work, part of exquisite collections worldwide, with books and catalogues written about him. Countless audiences would be studying, copying, and admiring his paintings. His name would be synonymous with painting itself. Yes, she thought, one day. Madame Manet was certain.

Manet: Three Paintings From the Norton Simon Museum was on view October 16, 2019 – January 5, 2020 at the Frick Collection, 1 East 70th Street, New York.

[1] David Pullins, Manet: Three Paintings from the Norton Simon Museum (New York: The Frick Collection, 2019), 68.

[2] Georges Bataille, Taste of Our Time: Manet (Skira, 1955), 22.

[3] Ibid, 8.

[4] Pullins, Manet, 34.

[5] Ibid, 28.

[6] Ibid, 52.