PRINT December 2004

Svetlana Alpers


The recent surge of interest in Manet and Velázquez bodes well for painting. The international “Manet/Velázquez” exhibition that toured in 2002–2003 had two venues and two incarnations. At the Musée d’Orsay in Paris it was subtitled “La Manière espagnole au XIXe siècle.” In its New York version the subtitle became “The French Taste for Spanish Painting.” Whatever else was intended, and there was more, looking at those two artists focused attention on painting as it has been in the past and prompted thoughts about painting now and its possibilities in the future. In Paris, Manet was presented as one of many French artists taking up Spain and things Spanish. In New York, Velázquez was among the many Spanish painters known to French (and, in addition, American) painters. In New York, in particular, explanatory wall labels proliferated to convey historical points about the collecting and migration of pictures. The show was large, the effect cluttered, and though their paintings were present, the Manet/Velázquez of the title was, in the event, a bit of a come-on.

By contrast, “Manet at the Prado,” a separate exhibition that opened toward the end of 2003 and closed early in 2004 with Madrid as its only (and indeed, given its nature, its only possible) venue, was designed to give pictorial matters free rein to see what they would yield. It did that, first, by taking advantage of what the Prado had to hand: What would Manet look like set among the Prado paintings, in particular Velázquez’s? And second, by giving freedom to Manet himself: What would Manet look like set among himself—his paintings mingled on the walls with the prints and drawings he made that led up to and emerged from them?

The Madrid exhibition was, in part, a homecoming. Manet himself had made a pilgrimage to Madrid to see Velázquez’s paintings in late August 1865 as a way of escaping the critical assaults of the Salon reviews of Olympia, 1863, and The Mocking of Christ, 1865. (Manet had indeed been attacked, though both Baudelaire and, on a later occasion, Berthe Morisot, remarked on how thin-skinned their friend was.) It was the first and only time Manet saw Velázquez en face. It confirmed what he had intuited and what in fact was already visible in his paintings before the trip.

In October 2003, it was Manet’s works that made the trip. Directly before the viewer in the Prado’s grand gallery, long before one reached the exhibition proper, was Manet’s The Mocking of Christ (reviled in 1865, now an honored visitor from Chicago). It was the first of several of his paintings situated on the recto and verso of supports erected for the occasion at a certain distance from one another down the middle of the long gallery, which was otherwise hung with Spanish paintings. Manet’s paintings travel well, I thought. They are remarkably self-contained. If the lighting on them is good (they do not benefit from the changing light of day, as some paintings do), they hold their own whatever the surroundings.

While looking about and considering how to come to terms with the juxtaposition of Manet and the paintings to either side, I caught sight of a second “mocking of Christ,” just visible at a distance through a doorway to the left. A spark of recognition, not quite a sense of identity, passed through my mind about the two—Manet’s “double” being a Van Dyck in his early, Rubens manner (Christ Crowned with Thorns, 1620). In both, a group of men circle about a pale figure, brilliantly lit, seated before a dark background. Curatorial tact saw to it that a casual glance, in no way forced, would show that Manet was at home. A latecomer, as Velázquez had been himself in his time (and, like Velázquez, without any direct heirs despite his achievement), he was treated as the last of that distinctive tradition favored by the Hapsburg court—Titian, Rubens, Velázquez, Goya, and now Manet. He would have liked being welcomed into this gallery.

We are accustomed to valuing pictorial difference, to distinguishing between and so confirming the individual identity of the masters. But the wit of the hanging of the Prado’s long gallery was that it dared one to assimilate paintings and painters—in particular Manet and Velázquez—to each other. Moving in closer, differences would emerge, but still, seeing double was one of the experiences in play. And, curatorially, one was left to one’s thoughts, or rather to the interest of looking.

Hanging to the left along the gallery wall beyond Manet’s Christ were Velázquez’s Bacchus, 1628–29; The Forge of Vulcan, 1630; The Dwarf Francisco Lezcano 1643–45; and The Buffoon Pablo de Valladolid, 1636–37, known in Manet’s day as The Tragic Actor. On the front of the next support, gallery central, in other words, and so juxtaposed at an angle to Pablo de Valladolid, was Manet’s The Fifer, 1865–66. If you turned to look back toward the entrance you saw Velázquez’s Adoration, 1619—hung back to back with Manet’s Christ and facing The Fifer.

A flicker between appearing to be there and being painted as if to appear to be there, and a concentration on human individuals of life-or just under life-size (a perception of scale disrupted by Velázquez’s Dwarf, a child-man, and by Manet’s Fifer, a man-child)—the two painters share those things. And they also share a taste for colors that surprise, pigments variously worked, and the suggestion of light and air in an uncanny mix that transgresses the conventions of pictorial space.

Manet famously described that effect when he marveled at Velázquez’s Pablo de Valladolid, which he saw in Madrid: “Possibly the most extraordinary morceau of painting that has ever been done . . . the background disappears, there is nothing but air surrounding the fellow, who is all in black and appears alive.” Responding in paint, he matched the bounce Velázquez gave to the wildly irregular right edge of the actor’s black garment with a black stripe of paint approximating the seam of the fifer’s red pant leg. Both artists are on record as liking to dress, and they indulged the taste. Manet’s extended family served as his models even as the royal court served Velázquez. Both flourished within coteries. And neither came to models with anticipatory or rehearsed knowledge, but instead responded freshly to particular features and to bodies performing before them in the studio. At least that is how the paintings look.

Over time, the original presentness of a painting becomes a thing of the past. But it is in the nature of paintings such as these that the past is undone. We do not suppose that this is how it was at the Spanish court, 1635, or that this was Paris, 1865. The fiction of being present to the viewer overrides that. And in the resemblance Velázquez/Manet, the accustomed art-historical distinctions old/new and historic/modern fold into each other.

Who painted The Forge of Vulcan? I thought. Why not Manet? When he was not painting portraits, his range, like Velázquez’s, was unpredictable and the look unexpected. Apollo, with flashy halo, wreath, and sandal of pea green, wrapped round with a cloak of brilliant orange pigment uneasily related to the deeper red of the metal glowing on the forge, stands apart from Vulcan and his assistants. Allusiveness (where did that awkward pose come from?) and elusiveness (what is going on here?) are combined.

The world is willfully painted in the canvases of both Velázquez and Manet. Economy, directness, and a variety of paint handlings within a single image are common to them. Center background of Vulcan, a diminutive male figure, markedly out of scale, jolts our attention. So does a radiant and unlikely white jug set on the mantelpiece and casting a lucid shadow on the wall. Like the still-life details Manet on occasion added to portraits, it finishes the painting off. The forge of Vulcan, so the jug (Manet-like, again) suggests, is a studio where things and people are on display.

Velázquez has been called the greatest of all painters, and Manet the first modernist. But both were enthralled by and worked under the authority of painting past. No oedipal anxieties troubled them. Wit was essential to the stance. Both played with taking paintings past into their own. In addition to flickering between being there and being painted as if appearing to be there, their figures have often had a prior life in art. The women in Velázquez’s The Fable of Arachne (The Spinners), 1644–48, come from Titian and Rubens; Victorine Meurent and Manet’s brother and brother-in-law have a picnic à la Raphael and Giorgione/Titian in the Déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1863. The paintings are not superficially jokey; rather, to exercise artifice is itself playful. They were well suited to this hanging in the Prado, which let us view one artist through the performance of the other—and then challenged us to reverse the terms.

At the end of the grand gallery, by contrast, history and the individual painter were given their due. A huge panoramic photo showed the Prado in the nineteenth century as Manet must have seen it, with pictures two tiers high crowding the walls. Facing this was a daguerreotype image of Manet’s face blown up so large as to reveal the tears and flaws of its (and his) history.

In the galleries that followed, Manet was on his own. The Spanish flavors of his art—the subjects and his handling of them—were poignant when seen there in the Prado in Madrid. Spanishness as performed by Mlle. V . . . in the Costume of an Espada, 1862, and Young Man in the Costume of a Majo, 1863, and, less deliberately, by the haunting Baudelaire’s Mistress Reclining, 1862 (sent from Budapest), whose subject is seated in and under a voluminous white, lacy gown, the feigning paint as lightly applied in the making of a faux princess as Velázquez had done in the painting of true ones. A homecoming in a sense, but also not. Seen on his own in these galleries, Manet appeared more as a receptive visitor to Spain.

The trip to Madrid in the summer of 1865 was an exception for Manet. Like lucky Parisians and many painters at the time, Manet spent his summers away, often at this beach or that. “Manet and the Sea,” an exhibition mounted at the Philadelphia Museum of Art early this year, showed what he did during some of these summers, mostly after 1865. Other than the singular picture Ship’s Deck, 1868, in which a deck and its rigging become a temporary workplace, studio conditions and the Salon ambition of Paris are absent. It appears that an avid market existed at the time for paintings with sea as subject. But painting outside the studio and supplying works for that market, it seems to me, did not encourage Manet to do his best work.

With the exception, perhaps, of the pair of landscape views of the Villa Medici made during one of his Roman sojourns, Velázquez’s art offers no equivalent to Manet’s summers. In particular, there is no equivalent to the free play found in the drawings and watercolor impressions in Manet’s sketchbooks made by the sea. On second thought, something like this is to be found within Velázquez’s paintings themselves. The famous rosettes evasively brushed in on Margarita’s dress in Las Meninas, 1656–57, might be described as an example of Velázquez at play.

In the reduced and sometimes even defensive state in which painting often finds itself today (pressure from all manner of things photographic is a factor), facture, understood as a tactile, sensual handling of pigments, is sometimes taken as the baseline—the testimony to what painting is. But we should not forget that there have been painters, Piero della Francesca and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, to name two extraordinary ones, who did not display painterly handling in that sense. Nor were they mimicking photography or an antecedent such as the camera obscura.

The affinity Velázquez/Manet is less a specific matter of the handling of pigment—though they were each highly conscious of it in different ways—than a common interest in the pictorial medium. Medium speaks to the range of things that are engaged in the making of a picture: a painter works on a support, uses a combination of his eyes, hand, and mind to create certain forms, at a certain scale, at a certain relationship to each other and to the boundaries or edges of the support, to be seen (perhaps) in a certain light, assuming a certain viewer’s position, and even positing a particular kind of response (in E.H. Gombrich’s felicitous phrase, a beholder’s share).

It is attention to the medium understood in this expansive sense, it seems to me, that constitutes pictorial intelligence. And Velázquez and Manet had that in spades. They shared not only an affinity for each other, but also for painting itself. This is not to deny their differences. But there is also something to be learned from their similarities. Working in a common tradition, neither stood still in it or ignored the world in which he lived. To offer one example: The pictorial tradition in which they worked encouraged the playing of roles. It is assumed in the depiction of the studio where models appear or are imagined as appearing before the artist. Pictorial and human poignancy are discovered in the studio. Where/who is the portrayed person and where/who the audience/beholder? Contrast Pablo de Valladolid and The Fifer. In Velázquez’s case the role of Valladolid as buffoon was established at the court, while Manet (here curiously mixing the body of Léon Leenhoff, his wife’s illegitimate son, with facial features of Victorine Meurent) had to invent the fifer. This was a problem—in his painting and in his world—that Manet can be said to have addressed. His paintings are an attempt to find a solution.

It is hard to say in any particular instance what in their practices displayed an understanding of the medium and what an understanding of the world. I imagine that for these painters the problem did not present itself in such terms. It is those who come after, in particular writers on painters, who have pressed the distinction.

The residue of “Manet at the Prado” was a renewed passion for painting as an art—to borrow a phrase from Richard Wollheim. Velázquez and Manet, one imagined, had an affinity for each other. Manet said that Velázquez fulfilled his ideals of painting. But it is possible to imagine a reciprocal relationship: that Velázquez returning from the dead would have understood Manet, much as one might imagine that Giotto returning from the dead would have known what Raphael was up to. A difference is that the relationship Velázquez/Manet is not a matter of development or progress (along the lines proposed by Vasari’s “three ages of art”) so much as it is a matter of persistence, of continuity.

Velázquez and Manet demonstrate that to take painting on can be to take it on—with “taking on” meaning both to take it up and also to move onward with it. The play on words is a way to suggest that this particular tradition of painting has been inherently an inventive resource. It assumes that there are problems to be addressed, and it encourages change. Is painting that now? Will it continue as such?

Svetlana Alpers is professor emerita of the history of art, University of California, Berkeley. Her Vexations of Art is forthcoming from Yale University Press.