PRINT January 1967

Manet in Philadelphia

MANET IS FAR FROM BEING the only master who doesn’t develop in a straight line, with one step following the other in readily intelligible order. Nor is he the only master whose total body of work doesn’t make a coherent impression. But he is exceptional in his inconsistency. I don’t mean the inconsistency of his quality. He is uneven, but less so than Renoir or Monet. I mean the inconsistency of his approach and of his direction. This is what struck me particularly at the large Manet show in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

In one and the same year, 1862, Manet painted a picture like Young Woman Reclining in Spanish Costume and a picture like Gypsy with a Cigarette; the first, with its undulations of plum and silvery little gleams of bright color, is a masterpiece; the showy brushing and illustrativeness of the second anticipate present-day magazine art. So in its own way does Emilie Ambre in the Role of Carmen of 1879–80, with its overdone highlights. But all three of these pictures are well painted. Portrait of a Man (1860), though it has real character, and Angelina (1865) are not; it is hard to believe that their spindly drawing and opaque modeling came from the same hand that did the beautifully sleek Dead Toreador of 1864; they seem much more related to the black paintings Cézanne was doing in those same years. The only other places where I can see Manet having equal trouble with his drawing are in some of his backgrounds of the same period and in his etchings (he did not handle an etching needle with the same ease that he did a brush or pencil).

Elsewhere, Manet’s inconsistency has much more to do with what I would call, for lack of a better word, his orientation than with his taste or manner of painting. It is not that he dealt with a tremendous variety of subjects or tried different paint techniques. It is that he so often changed his notion of what a picture should be: built-up, put-together, and “composed,” or random and informal, studied or spontaneous, intimate and subdued or grand and imposing. All through the 1860s he kept one eye on the Old Masters, but it was an eye that wavered. Dejeuner sur l’herbe (1863), though its layout comes from Florence, goes toward Venice; Olympia (likewise 1863), with an arrangement that comes from Venice, goes toward Florence.

Yet Manet’s best years were just those, the 1860s, in which he was most inconsistent. After the middle of the 1870s his approach becomes a little more settled, to some extent no doubt under the influence of the Impressionists. But it was no gain. His handling turned lighter and fluffier; he did some wonderful things with this handling, new things, but many of them represent a lowering of level. The pastel Man with a Round Hat and the very thinly painted Young Woman (both dating from around 1879) are perfect in their different ways but they, too, predict some of the banal and slick art of later times.

Manet’s case makes it quite clear that consistency is not an artistic virtue in itself. It did not keep him, any more than his prodigious skill with the brush did, from creating great works of art that are not tours de force and have nothing to do with virtuosity. Nevertheless, his inconsistency does seem to offer an obstacle to many people. They find it difficult to get his art into clear focus. It’s their own fault, of course, more than it is Manet’s. One looks at one picture at a time, one looks at single works, not at a whole oeuvre. Or rather, one should.

Manet’s inconsistency can be attributed more to his plight as the first modernist painter than to his temperament. The question of what you were supposed to paint, and with what intentions, was still wide open when he came on the scene. He was not the one to settle it––that was left to the Impressionists, who took their cue from Corot more than from anyone else. Unlike Corot, Manet had conventional ambitions and wanted to shine in the Salons. He painted in the new and startling way that he did simply––and yet not so simply––because he wanted to get away from the “stews and gravies” (his own words) of orthodox painting in his time, with the black, brown, and grey murk of its close shading and shadowy backgrounds. He filled his own pictures with blacks, greys, and browns, but the blacks were usually local colors, and he gave the greys that he shaded with, and the occasional browns, a particularity and clarity like that of local color. That is, they no longer remained neutral. Manet was able to achieve this because of the new, syncopated kind of shading-modeling that he adopted. This kind of shading was not entirely new; there were precedents, among them the very recent one of photography. In frontally lit photographs especially, the shading becomes compact and patch-like because it skips so many of the intermediate gradations of light-and-dark value that the sculpturally oriented painting of Renaissance tradition contrived to see. By being juxtaposed more abruptly, without gradual transitions and blurrings, the different shading tones of grey or brown are allowed to come through as particularized colors in their own right. This has the effect, in turn, of letting the local colors that the greys or browns shade come through more purely––which means more flatly. For the sake of luminousness Manet was willing to accept this flatness (Courbet reproached him for it by saying that Olympia looked like a playing card––the “Queen of Spades coming out of her bath”). The Pre-Raphaelites, too, had wanted to do brighter pictures, but were unwilling to accept flatness, and so they had imposed detailed shading on their heightened color, imitating the Quattrocento Italians. But whereas the latter could get away with it because in their time and place they could get away with anything that served to increase the sculptural realism of their art, the Pre-Raphaelites could not. Their timidity in the face of the tradition of sculptural illusion led them into what proved to be a blunder of taste more than anything else. (A decade separated the beginnings of Pre-Raphaelitism [1848] from Manet’s own beginnings, but the difference between them in artistic culture seems more like an aeon.)

Manet learned a lot about syncopated modeling from his teacher, the much-maligned Couture (who had an influence on Homer and Eakins as well). Couture had his own glimmer of the new, and there are unconventionally sharp contrasts of light and dark, black and white in his more informal paintings. But he acted on his glimmer half-heartedly, confining its expression to his smallest and least ambitious works. Manet himself seems to have been harassed by the question of the difference between ambitious and unambitious efforts. During the first years of his artistic maturity he continued to believe, apparently, that a “machine,” a picture big enough in size and complicated enough in subject and composition, was what a painter had to prove himself with. But composition in the accepted sense posited a strong illusion of relief or else of quasi-theatrical space. Both of these were denied to him by his flat handling. He had trouble always in managing the transition from foreground to middle- and background when the foreground was occupied by one or more figures of any size. (That its background falls away hurts Dejeuner sur l’herbe––which would have profited by having its canvas cut down at the top and sides.)

All through the 1860s it was as though each picture (save for the still lifes and the seascapes) confronted Manet with a new problem. It was as though he could accumulate nothing from experience. But this, precisely, worked to keep his art so fresh during that time. Each painting was a one-time thing, a new start, and by the same token completely individual. Nothing could have been more different from the way in which most of the Impressionists, and Cézanne and Van Gogh too, went from one day to the next in their work. Their pictures tended to take their places in a sequence, like so many steps in the solution of a single set of problems. This by no means renders their art inferior to Manet’s but it does tend to make their pictures less markedly individual among themselves, less markedly individual in the context, that is, of the given artist’s oeuvre. (This is the way it is, too, with the Classical Cubist works of Picasso, Leger, and Braque; but it is not that way, for the most part, with Matisse’s paintings.)

Manet’s still lifes and seascapes show a greater consistency of approach, as well as a steadier level of quality, than anything else in the total body of his works in oil. When it came to dealing with fruit and flowers and fish his qualms about composing disappeared. Actually, he handled still life a little more traditionally than he did other kinds of subject; or rather the absence of close modeling was less conspicuous within a small compass than within a large one. And in his seascapes the very nature of the subject relieved him automatically of “problems of composition” by offering him the simplicity of a single broad plane tilted against the vertical one of the sky and punctuated by relatively few three-dimensional objects. (It was the same, for that matter, with an outdoor subject that contained a large enough expanse of greensward.) Manet could have played it safe by confining himself to still lifes and seascapes. But had he done so he would have amounted to no more than a superior Fantin-Latour or Boudin. That would still have been a lot; it would in fact have been immense, but it wouldn’t have been enough to compensate for the non-existence of paintings like Olympia, the Dejeuner, The Luncheon of 1868–9, The Fifer of 1866, the Bon Bock of 1873, the Bar at the Folies-Bergere of 1882, and more than a few others.

Some of those others, along with the Bon Bock, were to be seen in Philadelphia: The Reader (1861), the already mentioned Young Woman Reclining in Spanish Costume of 1862, the 1865 fragment, Women at the Races, The Portrait of Theodore Duret (1868), Madame Manet (1866), the two fragmerrts from London of The Execution of Emperor Maximilian (1867), The Ragpicker of 1865, the Blue Venice of 1875 (which is not a seascape), the unfinished portraits of George Moore (circa 1879) and Emile Guillaudin (1870), and still more. To make up for the absence of most of the famous Manets, there were a good many things present in Philadelphia that were unfamiliar, at least to me. Also, there was an unusually large selection of prints, drawings, and watercolors. I could have wished, however, that the catalog had gone into less detail about each print; the scholarly conscientiousness was altogether out of place. I could also have wished that the eight hideous color reproductions had been dispensed with. The awfulness of the color all by itself, not just in its infidelity, was an affront to Manet, and to art in general.

––Clement Greenberg