The Still-Life Paintings

By George Mauner

American Federation of Arts
Harry N. Abrams, Inc.

Copyright © 2000 American Federation of Arts. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-8109-4391-3

Chapter One

George Mauner

In March of 1865, Edouard Manet informed Charles Baudelaire of an event hefound extraordinary: "I had quite a surprise these last days, Ernest Chesenau bought a paintingfrom me, two flowers in a vase, a little nothing. Perhaps he will bring me good luck." The critichad, in fact, bought the little still life at the Martinet gallery, where Manet had had an exhibitionearly in 1863, and where he had again sent works to be exhibited in February of 1865. The reallyremarkable thing is that it should have been Ernest Chesenau, of all people, who bought the painting,for though the critic had shown some understanding of Manet's gifts in his review of theMartinet exhibition in early 1863, he had much to criticize when he saw Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe(fig. 7) later that year: "M. Manet will have talent," he wrote, "when he learns how to draw anddo perspective; he will have taste the day he renounces those subjects that are chosen with a viewto provoking scandal." It was also Chesenau who had revealed Manet's use of the seated groupin Marcantonio Raimondi's engraving after Raphael, The Judgment of Paris, in the arrangement ofhis figures in Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe, his point having been to expose Manet not only as a plagiarist,but as one inept enough to allow the identification of his source. That this identification mighthave been Manet's intention (since it is so obvious) did not occur to Chesenau, just as it has notoccurred to many since then. Under the circumstances, then, it is easy to understand Manet'ssurprise at the news of this purchase, and the pleasure it gave him. He must, however, have hadan even greater surprise when he read Chesenau's opinion of Olympia only two months after hehad bought the still life. On May 16, Chesenau wrote: "I must say that the grotesque aspect of hiscontributions has two causes: first, the almost childish ignorance of the fundamentals of drawing,and then, a prejudice in favor of inconceivable vulgarity. He succeeds in provoking almostscandalous laughter, which causes the Salon visitors to crowd around this ludicrous creature called`Olympia.'" It is interesting that Chesenau was able to make such a clear and categorical distinctionbetween the quality of Manet's large figure paintings and his efforts in still life.

    Edouard Manet is so closely associated with the violent reaction his art first elicited thatthere is a certain amount of difficulty in thinking of him as anything other than as a radical, groundbreakingfigure, least of all as a painter who, in other respects, found acceptance and even admiration.It is, after all, Manet whom we identify with the Salon des Refusés in 1863, with the birthof Impressionism, and with the notion of the avant garde itself, with its basic tenet that there willalways be a gap between the courageous, innovative artist and an unprepared public. Moreover,the scandals produced by the great figure paintings of 1863 and 1865 (nominally genre but on anunaccustomed grand scale and lacking the charm expected of genre painting), and their historicalfallout, have obscured the fact that Manet had been painting other pictures that, while revealingthe same technical verve, were readily accessible to traditional tastes and provoked no one.In this category are to be found the still-life paintings, some eighty in number, approximatelyone-fifth of his life's work.

    Two references Manet made with regard to still-life painting are as revealing to us asthey are thought-provoking: "Still life is the touchstone of the painter," he said on one occasion,and a longer remark, contained within a helpfully broader context, was made to the painterCharles Toché in Venice: "These Italians bore one after a time with their allegories and their"Gerusalemme Liberata" and "Orlando Furioso," and all that rubbish. A painter can say all hewants to with fruit or flowers or even clouds.... You know, I should like to be the Saint Francisof still life."

    This last remark, as we shall see, was not as casual as it might seem. The first remarkwas made late in his life to Jacques-Emile Blanche, when Manet asked the young artist to bringa brioche along on a visit to his studio for the purpose of painting it under Manet's supervision.What did Manet mean by the "touchstone" of the painter? An obvious and simplistic reading ofthe term would suggest that still life, more than any other genre, tests the painter's ability to renderconvincingly, and in purest form, the appearance of the things of this world. In other words,it would seem to be consistent with the most basic definition of realism, such as the one impliedby Gustave Courbet's famous remark that he would be pleased to paint an angel were he ever tosee one. It can, then, be understood simply as a reference to the level of the artist's skill, to thatcoordination of the hand and the eye that is the hallmark of technical mastery However, Manetmay well have had in mind the significance that things have for our consciousness, the associationswith which they are laden, in short, the wide range of human thoughts and feelings thatthey can be made to recall or evoke. Could this really be taught, or perhaps inspired by example?Manet's words to Toché, including the astonishing mentions of Saint Francis and even ofclouds, surely imply that Manet had quite a sophisticated meaning in view. At the very least, hisunvarnished opinion of Italian Baroque art tells us unequivocally of his rejection of narrative inpainting and, more generally, of his view that what is appropriate in literature and what is suitableto visual art are different in character. He could not have failed to understand that the historicalsubjects he ridiculed were also intended to convey more than a recollection of a historicalmoment, that they contained references to aspects of human nature that are not time- or incident-bound.It is in this regard that we can see the likelihood that Manet believed these feelingscan be given more substantial, unadulterated, and lasting expression through the selection andorganization of objects. The probability of this being the case can best be tested by examiningManet's inclusions of still life within his figure paintings, -wherein their prominence is evidentand anything but casual. Indeed, it is virtually impossible to imagine most of his figure pieceswith their still-life component removed. How can we doubt that the basket of food and shedclothing in Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe have a referential purpose? To recall just some of the more prominentexamples, can we think of Olympia's maid without her bouquet; The Old Musician withouthis violin, bow, and satchel; the Portrait of Emile Zola minus the books and objects on his desk; thePortrait of Théodore Duret (plate 14) without the taboret, lemon, and books; the Philosophers standingalone, without, in one case, the debris, and in the other, the oysters on a bed of straw, at theirfeet; the Portrait of Zacharie Astruc (plate 9) without the books, quill, and lemon in the lower leftcorner; the Woman with a Parrot (fig. 10) without the succulent orange on the ground; the StreetSinger relieved of her fruit and instrument; The Young Man Peeling a Pear (plate 10) without thefruit in his hand and on the plate; The Luncheon in the Studio with its double still life, the privateone at the right, the professional one at the left, removed; or the portrait of Eva Gonzalès (plate29) with its painting within a painting on the easel and the scroll and flower on the ground takenaway? And can we remove the rope and crown of thorns from the lower right corner of The Mockingof Christ, where they reappear as a thought-provoking emblem after having been given adescriptive function on the body of Christ? And what of the skull before the Monk in Prayer? Finally,can we imagine A Bar at the Folies-Bergère without its sparkling array of bottles and fruit dish frontand center on the marble surface? Is this not as much a still life with figures as a painting of figureswith a still life? A few of the earlier pictures should also be taken into account in this survey, for inthese the relationship between person(s) and objects is particularly revealing and easier to understandthan in the mature works. Woman with Pitcher (plate 7) is a particularly useful example.

    Those objects that, when assembled, become still-life compositions, have, when usedindividually, traditionally functioned as attributes of a personage, most commonly a saint or historicalfigure, or as representative of an abstract concept, such as we find in the emblem bookspopular with writers and artists since the sixteenth century. All academically trained artists ofthe nineteenth century were well acquainted with this usage, although they often ignored it ortried to apply it in a new way. In Manet's Woman with Pitcher the act that is represented, a womanpouring from a pitcher into a bowl, while nominally a genre subject, had also been the familiaremblem of the virtue of temperance throughout Europe for centuries (see figs. 1 and 2). Evenhad Manet not intended this as his subject, he would surely have realized that the public wouldtake it as such, despite the portraitlike character of the figure and Manet's effort to de-emphasizethe moral content of his conception. Such an approach was, of course, consistent with Baudelaire'sideal of presenting the eternal beneath the fleeting appearance of modern life, a notionManet was to develop with increasing subtlety in the years to come. It is pertinent, in this regard,to recall that Mademoiselle Victorine in the Costume of an Espada (fig. 3), painted in 1862, was basedon a sixteenth-century emblem depicting Nemesis (who punishes intemperance, or excess)retaining the sword from the emblem and substituting the red cloth or muleta (which stops thebull) for the reins held by the woman in the emblem (see fig. 4). The fact that the torero is awoman, long a puzzling aspect of the painting, is a further clue to its emblematic source andmeaning, since all abstract concepts, such as the virtues, were symbolized by women. This, ofcourse, is not puzzling in Woman with Pitcher, while it is startling to find a woman in the bull ring.The Andrea Alciati emblem is itself a reprise of the pose of a temperance by Raimondi (fig. 5).It is difficult not to see as attributes the huge sword that the boy carries in that exquisite earlywork (fig. 6), or the tray in the etching (plates 12a, b), watercolor (plate 11), and small oil paintingin which The Boy Carrying a Tray is a detail (plate 13). The meaning of the objects in thesepictures remains conjectural, and is no longer as obvious as in the slightly earlier Woman withPitcher, although they continue to seem purposeful in their selection and placement.

    In Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (fig. 7), a far more complex picture than Woman with Pitcher inevery respect, Manet not only borrowed the poses and figure grouping from a detail of theRaphael-Raimondi Judgment of Paris, but made use of the still life in the lower left corner as awitty allusion to his source. The helmet becomes a straw hat, a translation into modern, secularterms of one of the attributes of Athena. In the source image, the objects are placed betweenthe goddess and the nymph, and since Manet has retained only the nymph—now as a contemporarynude—the object has become part of her persona, a stylish component of the sensualarrangement composed of the fruit and the clothing that has been shed. In this case, thestill life comes as close to speaking as possible, and we might naturally conclude that Manetwished to help his viewer recognize his reference to a venerable, well-known image depictingmoral choice. Apparently only Chesenau recognized it, at least in print,until Gustave Pauli did so again in 1908.

    In Olympia it is the bouquet, a splendid still life brought in by theservant, that tells us of the arrival of a client (who does not appear in thepicture) in the courtesan's chambers. In The Old Musician, the object-attributeof the violin serves as a reference to the artist as philosopher (the figureis based on a classical statue of a philosopher in the Louvre), whilethe bow appears to point out life's duality, another firm Baudelairian conviction,embodied in the linked pale and swarthy adolescents who taketheir place in the lineup of characters that recall the archetypes of thecommedia dell'arte. (The pale youth is a direct reference to J.-A. Watteau'sPierrot, "Gilles" as well as the stages of life and the eternal return.")

    The sophistication of incorporating a philosophic point that wesee in Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe is foreshadowed by a number of picturespainted in 1862. In addition to The Old Musician, the most notable, as wellas enigmatic among them is The Street Singer (fig. 8), that first casting ofVictorine Meurent who would pose for for Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe and Olympiain the role of a Parisian type. As she emerges from a cafe, this characteris burdened with objects: the guitar, which seems almost too bulky forher to manage comfortably, and the cherries wrapped in a paper fromwhich she brings a handful to her lips. Her stare as she does this is unexpected,since she would hardly be engaged in this action while beingwatched. The gesture and gaze, along with the objects, confer upon thefigure and the subject as a whole a certain awkwardness that does notconform to the expected allure of a genre picture.

    The self-conscious gesture of hand to mouth is akin to the equally self-conscious waythe Woman with a Parrot (fig. 10), painted four years later, dangles her monocle before us whilesniffing some violets. This picture, with the orange, the violets, the monocle, even the talkingbird, and the woman's gaze, has been read as a representation of the theme of the five senses.A comparison with a painting (fig. 9) by the Neapolitan artist known as The Master of the Annunciationto the Shepherds, confirms this reading of Manet's picture. Although he may not haveknown this particular work, he very likely was familiar with the type. With this in mind, we maypresume to identify The Street Singer as an earlier attempt to treat that subject, incorporating references,as it does, to sight, sound, taste, smell (the smoky café espied behind the figure), andtouch (the term is, of course, applied directly to the playing of keyboard and string instruments,such as the guitar the singer holds in the precarious way that attracts our attention).

    There can be no denying that almost every image of a person in a given setting will containelements that may be assigned meanings of this sort, if one is inclined to do so. Could notthe The Guitarist, for example, with its musical instrument, plucked strings and mouth open insong, the smoking cigarette and the onion, be considered a still earlier rendering of the senses?And what of Les Gitanos, cut up but known to us through an etching? Is that composition not alsoa possible "five senses" image? It contains all the ingredients, and does so in a studied way. In thecase of Manet, some of whose paintings seem awkward or make traditional use of standardemblematic elements as attributes, there is ample reason to look seriously into the possibilitythat the artist did, indeed, think of his objects as referential, if not in every case, certainly in someof the important paintings, particularly during the 1860s. Woman with Pitcher, as we have seen, isprecisely such a work.

    The subject of the senses is part of a broader preoccupation with the theme of temperanceand the specter of mortality as it is expressed in the vanitas, paintings with their mementomori amid the sense pleasures of the world. These go back to the origins of still life as a genre,and there is no period when still Life flourished that it does not make its appearance, either overtlyor under some form of disguise. There is sufficient evidence that this thematic complex occupiedManet for a number of years, certainly from about 1860 until at Least 1868. Young Man Peelinga Pear (plate 10), painted about 1868, for example, is reminiscent of traditional renderings ofthe sense of taste or of smell. The way the model looks at us while in the act of preparing thefruit for consumption has the character of an invitation to think about the image. With a knowledgeof Manet's admiration for seventeenth-century Spanish painting, we can readily identify theimage Manet had in mind for his own representation of the subject. It is almost certainly the Senseof Smell by Jusepe de Ribera. There exist several sets of replicas of Ribera's five paintings of thesenses, one of them Long in a French private collection. These faithful copies, unlike the originals(which have slowly been coming to light), include the name of the sense written in Latin atthe top of each picture. The replica of Manet's source painting for his Young Man Peeling a Pear(and it may well have been the actual source) is labeled Odoratus (fig. 11). It has recently beendemonstrated that Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe, as it was presented at the Salon des Refusés betweentwo other paintings derived from images of virtue, became the centerpiece of a monumentaltriptych that, like The Judgment of Paris, has temperance as its theme. The Romans of the Decadence,the painting responsible for the fame of Manet's teacher, Thomas Couture, had also beena statement dealing with excess, and the philosophic reminder to lead a temperate life; but whereasCouture had depicted a scene from classical antiquity intended as an allusion to modern times,Manet has reversed the process and shows us modern life with a reference, by means of hissources, to antiquity and to the timelessness of the human problem.

    Raimondi's print not only illustrated the judgment of Paris, it also contained, in thelower left corner, an inscription admonishing the viewer to be aware of the trouble caused byParis's intemperate choice. Just a year before Manet painted the Déjeuner, a sixteenth-centuryfaience plate (fig. 12) decorated with Raimondi's composition, entered the Louvre as part of thecelebrated Campana collection. Just below the familiar seated figures, the ceramist inscribed hisown words of similar admonition:

O tu che legerai questo
dicto notarai teme Dio
e pensa ai fine che
bon(a)opera farai et
ei tuo bei tempo
non perderai.

(O you who will read this
dictum, remember the fear of God
And think of the end
that you will do good works
And not waste your precious time.)

It was probably not this plate that inspired Manet to paint his great, controversial picture, but inview of the publicity that the purchase and exhibition of the collection of the Roman MarquisCampana engendered, he must have known it, so that along with the dictum on the Raimondiprint, he could not possibly have missed the moral issue with which this design was associated.

    The invitation to think, which the artist extends to us by means of the youth's gaze inour direction in Young Man Peeling a Pear, is typical of such illustrations of the individual senses,as it generally is of paintings that contain a moral message. It is present in Ribera's "senses," aswell as in the series devoted to the subject by Frans Hals and Gonzales Coques (see fig. 13), andin an anonymous Spanish or French painting in a private collection (fig. 14), as well as in otherCaravagesque paintings in Naples. Thanks to such relatively straightforward cases of the use ofobjects as attributes of persons and concepts, we may assume that in all likelihood other works,such as The Boy with a Sword, The Boy Carrying a Tray, and The Boy Blowing Bubbles (a reference to thebrevity of life, deriving from the sixteenth-century commonplace of the "Homo Bulla" [Man asBubble]), were also conceived with an emblematic role that may always have been concealed tosome extent, but whose meaning is no longer understood or even suspected today.

    Such use of objects as we find in the portrait of Emile Zola are purposeful in an obviousway. The brochure on the desk before the sitter, for example, is Zola's essay about Manet, andit gives the viewer not only the names of the artist and the sitter, but also speaks of their union.Just as Manet had been Zola's subject, now Zola is "studied" by Manet. The objects in the Portraitof Théodore Duret, on the other hand, are difficult to read as anything other than what Duret, withsome uncertainty, told his readers they are—just a desire on the part of the painter to add somecolor. In this case, however, the little still-life arrangement constitutes a private message to thesitter, who, as critic, had not only just published a less than flattering view of Manet, but had alsogiven evidence of his embarrassment about owning and exhibiting the little portrait by the controversialpainter when he asked Manet to remove his signature from it. Manet responded witha trick learned from Francisco Goya (whose portrait Manuel Lapeña, Marquis of Bondad Real [fig.15], which Duret and Manet had seen together in Spain, served as a model for Duret's pose), byturning the signature upside down. The painting of the Duchess of Alba, in which Goya's signatureis reversed, had been in the Musée Espagnol in Paris until 1848. In that painting the duchess pointsto the inverted signature, as Manet has Duret point to his with the cane. Just as Zola's brochureis proudly displayed in the portrait of that writer, so Duret's book Les Peintres français en 1867,which includes his lukewarm opinion of his friend's work, is casually tossed under the taboret.Of course, Manet did not go as far as naming the book. He did not have to. The two pictures,both painted in the same year, reveal Manet's propensity for using appropriate objects, as well asgestures, as salient, silent commentary. Whether of a public or private nature, commentary therecertainly was?

    An interesting piece of evidence for Manet's understanding of the important part thatobjects can play in the communication of ideas, as well as for his surprising interest in esotericimagery, is his Fifer of 1866 (fig.16), a painting that Zola particularly admired, without, in all probability,being privy to its source. Manet's fifer derives from a tarot card of the mid-nineteenthcentury that represents the Fool (or Joker, in terms of the modern pack; see fig. 17). The posesand the activity, centered in the fife, are nearly identical, while the clothing is a translation of thetimeless Bohemian appearance of the tarot figure into that of the military musician of Manet'sday. It is true that this approach of incorporating "meaning" into a picture is characteristic onlyof Manet's work during the 1860s, but there is a major transitional work, dated 1870, that preparesus for the likelihood that, while the clues such as emblems, gazes, and pointing fingers vanish,the intention to continue to imbue the pictures with a second level of meaning has not beenabandoned, but is integrated with greater subtlety. This example is the portrait of Eva Gonzalès,Manet's only true pupil. The portrait is a veritable questioning of the nature of the artist's realityin the guise of presenting an attractive woman at her work.

    Quite appropriately, given her role in Manet's life, Eva is seen in the act of painting. Thework in hand is a still life of flowers in a vase. She looks very comfortable, with her foot restingon a footstool, and completely lacks the self-consciousness we have seen in The Street Singer andThe Woman with a Parrot of a few years earlier. She holds the palette and mahlstick in her left hand,while extending the right hand with the brush toward her painting, all as natural as possible.Thus, the figure lacks any thought-provoking qualities, but the painting as a whole contains morethan a few.