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: Manet's Smoker


Melvin Waldfogel



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
While the simple facts surrounding the origin of the Institute's Manet can be ascertained, other kinds of questions about the painting are less easily answered. "Realism or Poetry": which was Manet's aim? This is the question which Paul Jamot asks implicitly in the title of his essay on the painter.1 Baudelaire or Zola: with which of his critical allies should we identify him when they represent polarities in French literature—the former redolent with mystery and evocation and the latter "one of those artists who appeal to average opinion and who base their works on statistics," as Valéry put it?2 The Institute's Manet raises again all the old questions for which there are too many answers but none definitive, comprehensive, or substantial enough to stand up under scrutiny.That 1866 is the year The Smoker3 was painted can be deducted from a number of contemporary references. Its inclusion in a retrospective exhibition, which Manet had installed in a temporary building erected on the Place d'Alma during the International Exposition of 1867, establishes a terminal date.4 That it was painted not long before is apparent from Émile Zola's reference to The Smoker as scarcely dry in an article published in January, 1867, in la Revue du XIX Siécle. According to Tabarant it was one of two works painted by Manet during a six-week period, from mid-August to the end of September, 1866, the other being a portrait of the artist's wife.5The sitter has been identified as Joseph Gall, a landscape and animal painter, whom Manet had met five years before when he first occupied a studio in the house where Gall lived, at 81 rue Guyot.6 Gall also posed for The Reader which Manet painted in 1861. While the apparent age of the sitter is in accord with Gall's, who was born in 1807, differences between The Smoker and The Reader have suggested to some writers that a model other than Gall posed for the later work. Léon Rosenthal, without offering any documentary proofs, states that the model was a worker named Janvier whom Manet "employed to carry his paintings to the salon and to protect them from the attacks of imbeciles."7How Manet painted a portrait can be reconstructed from a number of witness accounts. Zola, whose portrait Manet exhibited in the Salon of 1868, recalled, among the discomforts of sitting for Manet, the numb limbs and tired eyes he suffered from holding the same pose for hours long.8 That Manet painted directly from the sitter, making neither sketches nor notations to which he could refer in his absence, we also know. When Zola urged Manet to improvise the details in his portrait (probably because he was tired of posing), Manet explained that he could do nothing without nature and that he did not know how to invent. Théodore Duret's description of the process is even more informative.
In 1868, in the studio in the Rue Guyot, Manet painted my portrait. Here I had an opportunity of observing the actual working of his mind, and the processes by which he built up a picture. The portrait was of a small size and represented me standing up, with the left hand in the waistcoat pocket and the right resting on a cane. The grey frock-coat which I was wearing detached itself from a grey background—the picture thus forming a harmony in grey. When it was finished, quite successfully in my opinion, I saw that Manet was not satisfied with it. He seemed anxious to add something to it. One day when I came in he made me resume the pose in which he had originally placed me, and, moving a stool near to me, he began to paint it with its garnet-coloured cover of woolen stuff. Then the idea occurred to him of taking a book and putting it underneath the stool; this, too, he painted with its cover of bright green. Next he placed on the stool a lacquer tray, with a decanter, a glass, and a knife. All these variously coloured objects constituted an addition of still life in a corner of the picture; the effect was wholly unpremeditated, and came to me as a surprise. Another addition which he made afterwards was still more unexpected—a lemon placed upon the glass on the little tray.I had watched him make these successive additions with some astonishment. Then, asking myself what was the reason for them, I realized that I had before me a practical instance of his instinctive and, as it were, organic way of seeing and feeling. Evidently the picture painted throughout in a grey monochrome gave him no pleasure. His eye felt the lack of pleasing colours, and, as he had omitted them in the first scheme of the picture, he introduced them afterwards by means of a piece of still life.9
While Duret is right when he observes that Manet composed by instinct and in a way that was completely visual, he is wrong when he concludes that the "pleasing colours" were introduced as an afterthought.10 In virtually every portrait painted by Manet up to that time, the monochromism is set off by a terse area of color: for example, the basket of yarn in the Portrait of the Artist's Parents (1859), the red sash and the lemon on the table in the Portrait of Zachary Astruc (1864), the cerebral still-life in the Portrait of Zola (1867-1868), and the blue cloth on The Smoker's lap. Color plays the same role in other kinds of subjects. The Girl with the Parrot (1866) is enlivened by a partly peeled lemon, and although reminiscent of an old Dutch still-life painting, it bears no thematic relation to the girl who, dressed in a peignoir, is prepared for bed rather than tea. Strategic touches of bright color in several of Manet's paintings so annoyed Paul Mantz when he saw them at the dealer Martinet's in 1863 that he censured Manet for caricaturing color.11While we cannot sympathize with his pejorative tone, the accuracy of Mantz's observation is beyond dispute. Already in 1863 he identified with astonishing accuracy the key feature of Manet's style of that decade: contrast. In The Smoker, for example, the concentration of color in a small area of blue in the otherwise neutral setting heightens its apparent intensity. The blue cloth stands out as a seemingly isolated touch of hue, unrelated coloristically to anything else in the painting.Light and dark are also treated in much the same way. The flesh tones, by their contrast with an otherwise dark painting, are made to seem lighter than they are, with the result that The Smoker appears, on first encounter, to have been painted in just two values, one very light and the other very dark. Even the blue cloth, although at variance with the rest of the painting in color, is so compatible with the light values that its folds can, if seen in detail in a black and white photograph, be confounded with the hand which rests on it.Such an effect of contrast would inevitably have startled the viewer of the 1860s. Painting, he had been taught, had been a connective and elisional art since the Renaissance. Through resort to Chiaroscura and sfumato the painter strove for a tonal effect. On the assumption that paintings without the haze of the old masters would be deprecated as amateur daubs, the English landscape painter John Constable often viewed the motif through the darkened glass, a practice revealed in all those paintings he considered his best and most fully realized efforts. Even in Delacroix's paintings atmosphere lends tone and the effect of brightness is somewhat attenuated by distributing color rather than concentrating it as Manet does.To reject graduation and to strive for contrast, instead, was to challenge the illusionistic premise on which Western painting rested. Through successive experiments, over several hundred years, artists had discovered how to give the appearance of the experiential world on a flat surface. All the great artists had contributed: Jan van Eyck with his limpid light, Masaccio with his graded modelling, Leonardo with his infusion of atmosphere, Rembrandt and Velasquez with their space-generating light. The painter of the 19th century was expected to accept his legacy without reservations, and to demur as Manet did was to put in jeopardy culture itself. Even Courbet who was still regarded as a controversial painter, on seeing Manet's Olympia in the Salon of 1865 complained: "It's flat; there is no modelling; you could imagine she was the Queen of Spades in a pack of cards, coming out of her bath."12 If Manet was right, then one of the most cherished beliefs of the 19th century had to be re-examined, namely that history was the record of man's progress. Charles Dickens, one recalls, in one of his few art-critical writings, lambasted the Pre-Raphaelites precisely because they had reverted to a pre-Raphael or primitive style and thus disavowed progress.13Departures from established practice become especially apparent when one compares The Smoker with works by Velasquez, the old master he admired most and whose works he had seen the year before in Spain. Unlike Velasquez's figures which are generally immersed in space and air—as Manet himself observed in a letter from Madrid (quoted below)—The Smoker is confined to a narrow plane at the front of the picture. The greyish atmosphere around him, while suggesting space, does not actually stimulate it as would be the case in a Velasquez; rather it reads as an almost abstract plane and as such serves as a foil for the figure. The resultant focus on the figure rather than on its relationship to its setting and is completely in accord with 19th-century vision which is characterized generally by a greater sensitivity to objects than to space. Already in Goya, spatial harmony is sacrificed to figural emphasis as Theodor Hetzer demonstrated brilliantly in his study of what he called the crisis in style at the turn into the 19th century.14 Placed in the frontal plane and rendered by heavily applied paint—a technique probably suggested by Courbet's liberal use of the palette knife in his controversial works of the 1860s—The Smoker enjoys a salience and palpability uncommon in the old masters.The pose, though disarmingly simple, also contributes importantly to the modernity of the picture. Contrasting directions, torsion and foreshortening, in short anything which might intimate change or movement is assiduously avoided or minimized. Rather The Smoker sits as if for his photograph on the slow emulsion of the daguerreotype, and the use of props to stabilize the figure—the table and the pipe—may, indeed, have been borrowed from the photograph which was still strikingly new and modern. Contrary to the belief that prevailed in the early days of the modern movement, namely that the innovating artist of the 19th century was reacting against photography, more recent studies suggest that he regarded photography as an ally and found that both its actual and potential imagery corroborated his own changing vision.15The pose contributes to the modernity of the work in still another way, by restricting the viewer to the surface and compelling him to apprehend the figure through luminous clues which impinge on the picture plane. To see a picture as a surface is to experience it in a very modern way and, thus, what we are encountering in The Smoker is an uncanny and prophetic sense for the kind of two-dimensional design which was to become the basic predicate of 20th-century painting.Yet, as one encounters The Smoker today, what one responds to, at least initially, is not its innovative qualities but its old masterliness. The distance of a hundred years over which it is viewed explains its "historic" look only in part. Actually old masterliness is an intrinsic feature of The Smoker and as essential to Manet's aesthetic as his reduced modelling, Courbet, Gautier, Zola—every astute contemporary who saw Manet's works—recognized his affinity for the great Spanish masters, notably Goya and Velasquez, a dependence that was strongly intimated by Manet's frequent use of Spanish subject, but the nature of the relationship has usually been ascribed to wrong caused, to apprenticeship or exoticism or a deficiency in imagination. Baudelaire, for example, flatly denied the relationship in the face of conclusive proof of Manet's borrowing.16 Nor can we expect elucidation from the reticent Manet; rather, the radicalness of his vision combined with his revolutionary stance in the 1860s obscures the significance of the old masterly component of his art. Contrary to Zola's characterization of Manet as an urbane bourgeois who really didn't want to trouble anyone, he consistently selected for public exhibition works which were either unconventional or enigmatic, and, in the context of contemporary taste polemical: The Luncheon on the Grass and Mlle. V in the Costume of an Espada (1863); Olympia and Christ with Angels (1865); The Fifer (1866); and The Girl with a Parrot (1868). Whether his selections were intended to stir up controversy or simply to stand out among the thousands of routine and polite paintings, hung from floor to ceiling, in the rooms of the official salons is open to speculation, but the public and critics could judge him only on the basis of what he chose to exhibit—and thus his notoriety. Not until the large retrospective which he organized himself in a makeshift building outside the International Exposition of 1867 was the public apprised of the range of Manet's interests but, alas, so few admissions to the exhibition were sold, critical opinion was left essentially unchanged.What must have been apparent to any thoughtful, albeit conservative, visitor to the exhibition was that the Manet he had prejudged and condemned as a renegade demonstrated in most of the paintings as a marked kinship with the old masters. Philippe de Champagne, the Le Nain brothers, Ribera, Velasquez, Murillo, Goya, all were present in spirit.17 Seen with dilated eyes, The Smoker appeared to belong as much to Velasquez as to Manet, and in the context of Manet's notorious works must have seemed both familiar and acceptable. Like Velasquez it was an essay in value painting. And without an actual Velasquez to measure it by, even the contrasts, which were discussed at length above, were not especially apparent. Pity that so few Parisians bothered to see the exhibition.While it is probably true that The Good Beer, which Manet painted in 1873 and has sometimes been considered to be a pendant to The Smoker, was an attempt to ingratiate himself with officialdom, such was not the case with The Smoker. Rather, it was painted in that aura of Spain which clung to him for several years after his short visit to Madrid in 1865. Not that an addiction to Spain was new for Manet for it had enchanted him since the beginning of his career, but the live contract with a large number of unquestioned originals exhilarated him and more important strengthened the affinity and admiration he already felt for Spanish art. From Madrid he wrote to his friend Fantin-Latour who like many young artists in Paris in the 1860s was enamored of Spanish value painting:
Oh, what a pity you are not here; what pleasure it would have given you to see Velasquez, who alone is worth the whole journey. The painters of every school who surround him in the Madrid Museum, and who are well represented, all seem second-rate in comparison with him. He is the painter to beat all painters. He didn't astonish me; he enchanted me. The full-length portrait in the Louvre is not by him; only the authenticity of The Infanta can't be doubted. There is an enormous picture here, filled with small figures like those in The Cavaliers in the Louvre. . .The most astonishing work in this splendid collection, and perhaps the most astonishing piece of painting that has ever been done, is the one entitled in the catalogue, Portrait of a Celebrated Actor in the Time of Philip IV. The background fades into nothing; the old boy, all in black, so alive, seems to be surrounded by air. And, ah, The Spinners; and the beautiful Portrait of Alonzo Cano (now believed to be the sculptor Montanes); and Las Meninas—another extraordinary picture! The philosophers—what astonishing works! And all the dwarfs too!—one in particular, seated full face with his hands on his hips; a painting for the real connoisseur. And his magnificent portrait!—one would have to include a lot; but they are all masterpieces. The well-known portrait of Charles-Quint by Titian, which certainly deserved to be appreciated and which anywhere else would undoubtedly have seemed to be good, here, in comparison, looks wooden.18
And he continues with qualified praise of Goya and a passing reference to El Greco, but Velasquez he calls the master. What Manet gained from his trip to Spain was a sense of perspective he had lacked before. He came to understand better his own relationship to the art of the past and how he could use the past more effectively. He perhaps came to see that the synthesis he had been striving for between the old masters and his modern vision could be achieved, not be annealing modernity to Titian or Giorgione as he had done in The Olympia and The Luncheon on the Grass but only by a more profound fusion of the old and the new. Thus, in the years immediately following the Spanish journey, source and subject, old modes and new forms are more successfully and credibly integrated. To cite but one instance, The Execution of Maximilian (1867) derives its composition from Goya, yet seems the perfect solution to the problem at hand. It is not only a convincing account of the demise of the Archduke Maximilian but also, as we know from Sandblad's study, and accurate documentation and enjoys as a result of rapport between the old and new that is uncommon in works done prior to the Spanish visit.19 Compare, for example, The Luncheon in the Atelier (1868) with The Old Musician (1862), both based on Velasquez, or The Balcony (1869) with The Spanish Ballet (1862), both dependent on Goya. Ambiguities of time and place yield in the later works to a new sense of consonance. The Smoker, although reminiscent of Velasquez, is completely acclimated to Manet's own milieu.Whether the patent old-masterliness of The Smoker is a progressive or regressive feature can never be decided conclusively. The argument that certain historic sources, for example, the 17th-century Dutch and Spanish realists, were less acceptable in Manet's time than, say, the classical masters of the past is not generally true. How then are we to explain the success of Meissonier whose military genre scenes derive directly from the so-called little masters of 17th-century Holland? What was in fact at issue was not source but finish, that is, the extent to which the artist employed literalness in the execution of his work. While it is true that many critics still held to a classical view of art and therefore insisted that the work provide an idealized projection of life, more often the critical appraisal devolved on the artist's skill in execution.20 Craft and dexterity came to supplant other criteria with the result that the whole conception of métier, as it had evolved in the works of the great masters, was put in jeopardy. Velasquez himself could probably not have passed muster with the public nor with the critics who represented popular taste. In this light, the conspicuous recollections of Velasquez in The Smoker appear as a bold and even revolutionary bid to return French painting to more salutary, and genuine, artistic concerns.21The relevance of Jamot's title "Realism or Poetry" with which we opened this discussion of Manet must now be apparent. While we have been able to adumbrate some of the problems attendant on The Smoker, the crucial question which Jamot posed many years back must in the final analysis be adjudicated by the view himself.Melvin Waldfogel is professor of art history at the University of Minnesota. A contributor to the Gazette des Beaux-Arts and The Burlington Magazine, Dr. Waldfogel's special field of interest is 19th-century French and German painting.For further reading on Manet:
Pierre Courthion, Edouard Manet (New York, 1962).Pierre Courthion and Pierre Caliller, Portrait of Manet by Himself and His Contemporaries (London, 1962).Theodore Duret, Manet (New York, 1937).George Heard Hamilton, Manet and His Critics (New Haven, 1954).Paul Jamot and Georges Wildenstein, Edouard Manet (critical catalog), (Paris, 1932).Alain de Leiris, The Drawings of Edouard Manet (Berkley, 1968).Nils Gösta Sandblad, Manet: Three Studies in Artistic Conception (Lund, 1954).Endnotes
  1. Pierre Courthion and Pierre Cailler, Portrait of Manet by Himself and His Contemporaries, p. 205
  2. Ibid., p. 207.
  3. 68.79. Anonymous Gift of Funds. Oil on canvas, 39 1/4" x 32". Ex. Coll.: Jean-Baptiste Faure, Paris; Durand-Ruel, Paris; Carl Neilsen, Oslo; Étienne Bignou, Paris; Durand-Ruel, New York; Leonard Gow, Glasgow; Mrs. A. Chester Beatty, London.
  4. For a profusely illustrated account of the exposition see Frank Trapp, "'Expo' 1867 Revisited," Apollo (February, 1969), 112f.
  5. A. Tabarant, Manet et ses oeuvres (Paris, 1947), p. 129.
  6. Ibid., p. 129. Also Paul Jamot and Georges Wildenstein, Manet, I, p. 133, no. 133; Étienne Moreau-Nélaton, Manet raconté par lui-même (Paris, 1926), I, pp. 88; Anne Coffin Hanson, Édouard Manet (Catalogue of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1966), pp. 100f.
  7. Léon Rosenthal, Manet aquafortiste et lithographe (Paris, 1926), p. 70. For reproductions of Manet's prints after his paintings of The Smoker see Hanson, pp. 100 and 101. Manet's earliest Smoker is a painting (1858-1860) copied from a Brouwer in the Louvre, cited and illustrated in Jamot and Wildenstein, op. cit., p. 116 and II, not. 22.
  8. Courthion and Cailler, p. 140f reprints, in translation, Zola, "My Portrait by Edouard Manet," L'Événement Illustré (May 10, 1868).
  9. Theodore Duret, Manet (New York, 1937), pp. 61f.
  10. Ibid., p. 63. Duret became aware later that his understanding of color in Manet's paintings as additive was incorrect.
  11. G. H. Hamilton, Manet and His Critics (New Haven, 1954), p. 40. He quoted from an article Manz wrote for the Gazette des Beaux-Arts (April, 1863).
  12. Courthion and Cailler, op. cit., p. 54.
  13. T. S. R. Boase, English Art, 1800-1870 (Oxford, 1959), pp. 282f. The French critic Bürger-Thoré was reacting in much the same way to the Salon of Rejected Paintings (1863) when he wrote in L'Indépendance Belge, "It looks as if these artists were taking art back to its origins without bothering about what civilization has been able to do before them. . ." The full quotation is given in Hamilton, op. cit., p. 49.
  14. Theodor Hetzer, "Goya und die Krise um 1800," Wiener Jahrbuch fur Kunstgeschichte, XIV.
  15. For a documented instance of Manet's use of photography see Carl Chiarenza, "Manet's Use of Photography," Master Drawings (Spring, 1969), p. 38f.
  16. For the exchange between Baudelaire and Büger-Thoré on the question of Manet's dependence on a Velasquez (now attributed to Skreta) in the Pourtales Collection, See Hamilton, op. cit., pp. 60f.
  17. The range, tenor, and intent of Manet's borrowings are discussed at length in Michael Fried, "Manet and His Sources, Aspects of His Art, 1859-1865," Art Forum (March, 1969).
  18. Courthion and Cailler, op. cit., pp. 14f.
  19. Nils Gösta Sandblad, Manet: Three Studies in Artistic Conception (Lund, 1954).
  20. For a comprehensive account of the major critical schools in 19th-century France see Joseph C. Sloane, French Painting Between the Past and the Present (Princeton, 1951).
  21. Others too feared that art was being reduced to technical virtuosity. Just five years before The Smoker was painted William Morris founded the firm of Morris, Marshall, and Faulkner, Fine Art in Painting, Carving, Furniture, and Metals, an event which marks the beginning of the modern design movement. The reform in design which Morris initiated is the subject of Nikolaus Pevsner, Pioneers of Modern Design (New York, 1949).
Referenced Works of Art
  1. Edouard Manet. French, 1832-1883. The Smoker, 1866. Oil on canvas, 39 1/2" x 32". Anonymous Gift of Funds, 68.79.
  2. Edouard Manet. The Reader, ca. 1861. City Art Museum of Saint Louis.
  3. Edouard Manet. The Good Beer, 1873. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Mr. and Mrs. Carroll S. Tyson Collection.
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Source: Melvin Waldfogel, "Manet's Smoker," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 57 (1968): 17-28.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009