If the works of Edouard Manet seem to you a little out of place in the all-too-frequent blockbusters of French impressionist art, you’re right. His clear-edged, close-to-the-picture plane, patterned figures and scenes never fit in with the fluffy brushwork and pastel colors of fellow “impressionists” Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro and Auguste Renoir.
You’ll see why when you visit the not-to-be-missed “Manet/Velazquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting” exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. For the first time, visitors can view the paintings of Manet and Diego Velazquez side by side, enlightening juxtapositions previously limited to reproductions.
You will have to hurry to see the show. This unparalleled gathering of works from more than 70 museums and private collections in 13 countries runs through June 29.
Velazquez’s bold handling of paint, the way he used light on form and color, and his use of shadow rather than line to create space mesmerized the younger, French artist when he first became aware of the Spanish master’s work.
The two artists brought together here for the first time lived two centuries apart in different countries.
Velazquez (1599-1660) was a key contributor to what has been called Spain’s Golden Age and was court painter to King Philip IV in Madrid.
Manet (1832-83) lived and worked in Paris and always has been grouped with the French impressionist movement begun by Monet in 1874. While sharing Monet’s preoccupation with the effects of light, Manet used light in strong, even harsh, ways.
The exhibit’s thesis is conceptually simple, yet complex in its art historical elaboration. It proposes that during the 19th century, the realism of Spain supplanted that of the Italian Renaissance as the chief inspiration of French painters such as Eugene Delacroix and Gustave Courbet, as well as Manet. To reinforce its argument, the exhibit adds Spanish artists such as Francisco Goya, Bartolome Esteban Murillo, Jusepe de Ribera and Francisco de Zurbaran to its in-depth showing of Velazquez.
The exhibit demonstrates that Americans caught the bug, too. After observing the Spanish influence on the French artists, painters James McNeill Whistler, Thomas Eakins , William Merritt Chase, Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent all embraced Iberian art in their turn.
Metropolitan Museum director Philippe de Montebello describes the show’s mission succinctly: “Once Velazquez supplanted Raphael on the throne of high art, the world of painting was made anew.”
It came just in time to counter the sleek idealism of such neoclassical painters as Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres and Jacques Louis David.
In a word, Spanish influence revolutionized both the art of the time and the modernism that followed, a point the exhibit thoroughly almost too thoroughly illustrates.
The exhibit hits viewers between the eyes by leading with paired portraits, “The Jester Pablo de Valladolid” (circa 1632-33) by Velazquez and “The Tragic Actor (Rouviere as Hamlet)” (1865-66) by Manet. Mounted by themselves on a deep-tomato red wall, they pack an unusually powerful punch.
It could be said that the Velazquez, loaned by the Museo del Prado in Madrid, and the Manet, from the National Gallery of Art, sum up the exhibit. You could bask in their glory and then go home but don’t. There’s much, much more to see, including a large gallery of early Spanish paintings by Ribera, Murillo and Zurbaran; an in-depth view of Goya; a room devoted to Manet’s work that includes such major works as “The Balcony,” “The Dead Toreador,” “Mlle V … in the Costume of an Espada,” “Beggar With Oysters” and “The Execution of Emperor Maximilian”; and a dazzling room of Sargents, Whistlers and Cassatts.
Manet had been especially taken with Velazquez’s “Jester” when he first saw it. He liked Velazquez’s unconventional choice of subjects a lower-class person rather than a Spanish court noble. Manet admired the Spanish artist’s obvious, but distanced, sympathy for the man whose chief job was to entertain the king. He was to paint “The Tragic Actor” some 230 years later.
The Frenchman was to learn from the Spaniard’s radical placing of the figure, his limited range of colors, the quick brush strokes that imply rather than delineate, and the sharp juxtaposition of the flat, ambiguously spatial background. Manet had always been interested in Velaquez’s visual approach when he saw his paintings in France, but it wasn’t until after Manet’s trip to Spain in 1865 that he came to understand the Spaniard’s genius. He painted “The Actor” within a year of his return home.
Like Velazquez, Manet gave the real figure an intense immediacy. He underlined the presence by using a limited palette and emphasizing the hands and face by lighting only them.
The exhibit guides the viewer through galleries illustrating what French painters could see in France during Manet’s time (“Spanish Painting in France: Late 18th and Early 19th Centuries”) and on to a gallery of Goyas, including his famous “Majas on a Balcony.” A room of work by the Spanish painters Zurbaran, De Ribera and Murillo, who influenced Manet as well as other French artists such as Courbet, follows. This gallery includes De Ribera’s famous “The Beggar” (“The Club-foot”).
In the splendid gallery devoted to Manet, the focus is the artist’s large, horizontal “The Balcony” of 1868-69, a work that combines the art of the Spanish masters with everyday Parisian life. It clearly relates to Goya’s “Balcony” in the previous room. Manet had briefly seen a family on vacation, and that memory may have inspired this composition. He placed artist and future sister-in-law Berthe Morisot, wearing the come-hither-look of Spanish majas, at the left (it is said he fell in love with Morisot when he first met her in Paris, but he already was married; she later married his brother). Two more friends, a female violinist and an artist, acted as models for the two other figures. He placed a boy with a ewer, a motif from Spain, in the background. One of Manet’s favorite paintings, he kept it in his studios until his death.
The artist painted “Mlle V … in the Costume of an Espada” partly in fun. The elegant, amusing redhead with white porcelain skin was one of his favorite models. He dressed her in the costume of a male toreador, but she looks out at us rather than the bull. Behind, a picador jabs the animal with a weapon in what was the first round of a bullfight. Manet lifted the scene in the back from one of Goya’s etchings of bullfights.
The museum also includes a self-portrait, “Self-Portrait With Palette” (1878-79), in the show. It is one of his rare images of himself and clearly an homage to the self-portrait Velazquez placed in his great work, “Las Meninas.”
The gallery display climaxes with Manet’s gigantic “The Execution of Emperor Maximilian.” Napoleon III had placed Maximilian on Mexico’s throne in what had been called the French monarch’s “disastrous Mexican adventure.” Manet was so enraged when he heard the news in 1867 that he decided to make a large, history painting from the event. Manet had seen in the Prado Goya’s rendering of the heroic Spanish uprising in Madrid on May 2, 1808, and based his work on it.
Manet tightly grouped his executioners to the right. He pulls visitors’ eyes to the inescapable image of the falling “emperor” at left through the repeated, vertical lines of the smoking rifles. The painting’s size and bold, dramatic composition make it one of Manet’s greatest works.
It doesn’t take this 130-work show to drive the point home that art feeds off other art. The exhibit successfully does this with glistening, powerful works, but if the works weren’t so important and enjoyable on their own terms, the curators could be accused of laboring to prove what is virtually self-evident.
If you cannot make it to New York for the show, Accenture, the exhibit’s sponsor, adapted “Manet/Velazquez” for the Internet, enabling visitors to see the exhibit online. Accenture says it created the site (www.metmuseum.org) with its partner, Microsoft.