The Spanish Old Masters and A Rebellious Bird – Édouard Manet, Part Two

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Please see: Slightly Intoxicated by a Rebellious Bird – Édouard Manet, Part One

In February 1870 at Café Guerbois, Édouard Manet confronted his friend, art critic Louis-Edmond Duranty, slapped him in the face and challenged him to a duel.

Édouard Manet; Au Café Guerbois (1st version), 1869; Lithography (quill) on paper. During the 1860s, Manet and other artists and writers met on Sundays and Thursdays at Café Guerbois to engage in spirited, intellectual discussions. Here, Manet captures one of them with quick strokes of his pen.

Duranty had just written a conspicuously brief review of Manet’s works in an exhibition, “M. Manet showed a philosopher trampling oyster shells and a watercolor of his Christ with Angels.” It fell far short of the laudable commentary that Manet expected. Duranty demanded an apology. Manet refused. 

Left: Édouard Manet; Philosopher (Beggar with Oysters), 1867; Oil on cardboard; Art Institute of Chicago and Right: Édouard Manet; Dead Christ with Angels, 1865-67; Graphite, watercolor, gouache, pen, and India ink on paper; Musée du Louvre, Paris

A few days later in the nearby forest of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Manet and Duranty dueled with swords. After Duranty received a wound above the right breast, the seconds intervened and declared that honor had been satisfied. They remained friends.

Fourteen years later, a few months after Manet’s death, a public memorial exhibition of his art was held at the prestigious École Nationale des Beaux-Arts. The second gallery, a survey of paintings from the 1860s, “featured a symmetrical hang of four works: two somber full-length figures, each identified in the catalogue as A Philosopher, hung on either side of the magnificent marine Combat of thKearsage [sic] and the Alabama, which was above The Dead Man (a fragment of his Bullfight). The two Philosopher figures stand as if presenting to the viewer two powerful images of conflict and mortal combat. They can be seen as symbolizing the artist’s . . . battles with the Academy and the Salon” (Art Institute of Chicago). The painting of the philosopher that had been casually disregarded by an art critic, a slight felt deeper because it came from a confidant and friend, was understood, finally, as something more.

Manet’s career marks a time in art history when Europe’s national art academies’ monopoly over what defined “great art” was questioned. For hundreds of years, academies taught that the image on the surface of the canvas should be realistic, a “window to the world.” Therefore, the artist’s brush marks needed to be invisible, the artist’s hand and the object rendered became one – the picture should not remind the viewer that they were looking at paint applied to a flat canvas.

This was accomplished by adhering to the aesthetics of Classic ancient artists and the techniques developed by master artists of the Renaissance. Then and now, classically trained artists study and copy masterpieces to work through the process of painting a straightforward replica, translation, interpretation, departure, or a complete transformation of an artwork. 

Raphael; Young Woman with Unicorn, c. 1505-06; Originally oil on panel; Galleria Borghese, Rome. Legend holds that the unruly and elusive unicorn can only be tamed by a virgin. This unicorn started out as a lap dog. Can you find the dog ears that were painted over?

At the end of the 1700s, eight schools of art were recognized (Roman, Florentine, Lombard, Venetian, German, Flemish, Dutch, and French) and none were Spanish. So few works by the Spanish masters – El Greco, Francisco Goya, Bartolomé Estéban Murillo, Jusepe Ribera, Diego Velázquez, and Francisco de Zurbarán  – were available in public collections outside of Spain that the art academies in Paris knew very little of their works. 

That all changed after Napoléon invaded Spain and made his older brother, Joseph Bonaparte, the king. Hundreds of superb paintings were seized from palaces, cathedrals, and convents as war loot. 

The artwork that Joseph didn’t keep for his private apartments in Madrid (like Velázquez’s extraordinary The Water Seller of Seville) were sent to Paris for the Musée Napoléon. 

Diego Velázquez; El aguador de Sevilla, c. 1620; Oil on canvas; Apsley House, London

Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, defeated Joseph in 1813 and seized his belongings. As a thank you gift, the restored king of Spain allowed Wellesley to keep The Water Seller of Seville. It remains in the duke’s historic home.  

Joseph and the possessions that he’d successfully hidden from Wellesley came to the United States, where he lived in exile not far from Philadelphia for fifteen years. Several of those paintings and pieces of furniture are now in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

After Wellesley defeated Napoléon at Waterloo, various circumstances forced the French to send many of the stolen artworks back to Spain. Those returned to the Spanish royal collection were housed in a building that is now Museo del Prado in Madrid.

Statue of Velázquez outside of the Museo del Prado

Restitution left a major hole in the Louvre’s collection. Subsequent rulers of France compensated for the loss by amassing (through various means) what became the largest collection of Spanish art outside of Spain.

In 1838, French King Louis-Philippe (r. 1830-48) established the Galerie Espagnole at the Louvre with four-hundred paintings of Spanish art from his personal collection. Manet visited the gallery when he was sixteen. 

Francisco Goya; Majas en el balcón (Majas on Balcony), 1800-12; Oil on canvas; Rothschild Private Collection. Goya’s portrait of two courtesans was displayed in Galerie Espagnole from 1838-48.

A fascination for Spanish art mushroomed. Art journals and magazines throughout Europe published engravings, lithographs, copies, monographs, and descriptions of the paintings in the Spanish gallery with biographies of artists. During the 1800s first fifty years, Spanish art had gone from near obscurity in France to the pinnacle of esteem.

Left: Bartolomé Esteban Murillo; The Young Beggar, c. 1645-50; Oil on canvas; Musée de Louvre, Paris and Right: Magasin Pittoresque published five hundred engraved reproductions of artworks each year.

One French art critic commented, “What characterizes the Spanish school is power, animation, life; a luxury of color that seduces you, the exuberance of overflowing power. Moreover, . . . it never idealizes; and to be convinced of that fact, it is enough to compare for a moment Raphael’s Madonnas with Murillo’s Virgins.”

Left: Raphael; Madonna del Granduca, 1505; Oil on panel; Palazzo Pitti, Florence and Right: Bartolomé Murillo; Virgin and Child, 1670s; Oil on canvas; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The poses of Raphael’s wistful Madonna and her child are gracefully measured compared to Murillo’s wriggling infant, who momentarily pauses from nursing to react to our presence.

Zurbarán’s Saint Francis in Meditation became one of the most famous paintings in the Louvre. An art critic described the reaction of visitors as they entered Galerie Espagnole and were suddenly confronted by the monk. “A shudder of astonishment, almost fright, went through the crowd. It was as if amid some worldly music, they had unexpectedly heard the gloomy resonant strains of the Dies Irae” (the medieval Latin Gregorian chant, Day of Wrath).

Francisco de Zurbarán; Saint Francis in Meditation, 1635-39; Oil on canvas; The National Gallery, London.

The intensely austere deep shadows, simple background, and stark lighting focus attention on the saint in a moment of profound contemplation. The National Gallery purchased the painting from King Louis-Philippe’s collection at auction in 1853.


At the outbreak of the French Revolution of 1848, King Louis-Philippe abdicated, his collection was returned to him as compensation for loss of the throne, and the Galerie Espagnole closed. He fled to London and after his death, the sale of the collection at auction in London further disseminated hundreds of Spanish works to museums and private collections around the world.

Francisco Goya; Femmes lisant une letter (A Woman Reading a Letter), 1812-14; Lille, Palais des Beaux-Arts; Notes & Documents des Musées de France

By now, the influence of Spanish art reached the Salon (the official French academy’s extremely well-attended, and Europe’s most prestigious, art exhibition). A liberal art critic commented that, “One must first leave at the door of the Salon all ambitious aspirations toward a true art, and art that expressed the depth of human life, ideas, feelings, and passion, or even the splendors of nature, beauty, light, form and color. . . . The French school . . . signifies nothing. It is no longer religious nor philosophical; historical or political; it lacks both tradition and young originality.”

Many artists agreed that it was time for a change.

Camille Corot emulated Zurbarán’s ability to articulate emotions with a muddy range of colors. 

Left: Camille Corot; Homme en armure (Man in Armor), 1850-1875 and Right: St. Francis, c. 1840-45; Both oil on canvas; Musée de Louvre, Paris

Philadelphia-born Thomas Eakins studied in Paris for several years in the 1860s and visited Spain for six months before returning home. Eakins’s “Spanish notebook” remarks about the expressive power of Velázquez and Ribera.

Left: José de Ribera; San Andrés (Andrew the Apostle), 1630-32; Oil on canvas; Museo del Prado and Right: Thomas Eakins; The Crucifixion, 1880; Oil on canvas; Philadelphia Museum of Art

Gustave Courbet sourced their dramatic use of light and shadow. 

Gustave Courbet; Self-Portrait (The Cellist), 1847; Oil on canvas; Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

To garner attention and define his image in the increasingly competitive art market, the self-proclaimed “most arrogant man in France” made portraits of himself in various roles.

“Ribera, Zurbarán, and especially Velázquez, I admire them. . . . As for Raphael, while of course he made some interesting portraits, I find no thought in his paintings.” – Courbet 

It is at this moment, when the direction of painting in France is transforming, that young Édouard Manet became an art student in Paris. While learning the fundamentals in Thomas Couture’s studio, Manet also visited every Salon, exhibition, sale, and private collection, traveled to museums throughout Europe, studied studio and lithographed replicas, and registered in the Louvre as a copyist for pictures of the Italian and Spanish school. He was especially interested in Velázquez. His remarkable visual memory retained everything. 

Why Diego Velázquez?

Many scholars consider him to be the greatest European painter who ever lived and – 

Diego Velázquez; Self-Portrait, c. 1645; Oil on canvas; Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

his most famous painting, Las Meninas (The Ladies in Waiting), to be the greatest painting ever created. 

Diego Velázquez; Las Meninas, 1656; Oil on canvas; Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

It’s enormous size (10’5” x 9’1/2”; 3.18 x 2.76 m) honors the importance of its subjects, the court of King Philip IV of Spain. The reflections of the king and his wife appear in the large mirror on the back wall. At center, their five-year-old daughter is surrounded by her attendants.

More than a group portrait, it’s an enigma. The figures inhabit a space that is defined by –

the reflection and illumination of multiple light sources and

perceptions of depth and space that change based upon where the viewer stands.

Velázquez portrays himself in the elegant clothes of a courtier instead of what he would have worn while working.

The painting’s exceptionally complex composition may be art history’s most analyzed work. One interpretation, and there are many, is that Velázquez is looking into a mirror while painting; that reflection is the picture we see. What is real and what is perceived? 

Manet’s most famous copy is of a work that was then thought to be by Velázquez. The process allowed him to work through how Velázquez handled pigments and placed figures within a composition.

Left: Workshop of Diego Velázquez; Gathering of Gentlemen; Oil on canvas; Musée de Louvre and Right: Édouard Manet; Les Petits Cavaliers, 1859; Oil on canvas; Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia

Manet signed it “Manet d’après Velázquez” and enlarged the Spanish artist’s name.

Manet’s goal, of course, was to become a successful artist. The most expedient path meant having your work make it through the jury selection process for exhibition at the Salon. 

For his debut into the international art world, inspired by copies that he’d seen of two famous paintings by Velázquez, Menippus and Aesop, Manet submitted The Absinthe Drinker (A Philosopher) to the 1859 Salon jury. 

Diego Velázquez; Left: Menippus and Middle: Aesop, both c. 1638; Oil on canvas; Museo del Prado, Madrid

Right: Édouard Manet; The Absinthe Drinker (A Philosopher), 1859; Oil on canvas; Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

Velázquez’s ancient Greek philosophers occupy a vague space and wear humble 17th-century Spanish clothing. Due to various of cultural influences at the time, it was a common motif to portray philosophers as proud, poor, independent intellectuals who were unconcerned with their personal appearance.

Menippus, who wrote about various serious subjects using satire and ridicule, pulls his cape protectively over his shoulders and glimpses at us from the corner of his eye. Aesop, the free-spirited thinker, holds a book (perhaps his Fables) and looks directly at us.

Nobody mistook Manet’s figure for an ancient philosopher. They all recognized the model – it was Colardet, the man who was a ragpicker and an alcoholic who roamed the streets around the Louvre. 

Manet assumed the jury would appreciate that the deep shadows, ambiguous background, sober color palette, ragged clothing, and play of contrasts (the green glass of absinthe against the shadow on the wall, dark bottle against the yellow ground, the blurred face and white collar against the wall, hat and cloak) indicated his reverence and respect for Velázquez’s philosophers.

Before submitting the work to the jury, Manet asked Couture for his opinion. His former teacher replied, “My friend, there is only one absinthe drinker here – the artist that painted this crazy painting!” 

The Salon jury was horrified by the depiction of a living reminder of modern Paris’s inequities and rejected the painting. 

Manet continued to paint the realities of modern life. Paris was in the midst of an enormous eighteen-year, city-wide demolition and revitalization project. The homes of thousands of Parisians were demolished to make room for wide boulevards, apartment buildings, theaters, restaurants, stores, and parks in what became one of the most beautiful cities in the world. 

Several of the displaced people who subsisted in the area around his studio modeled for The Old Musician: a gypsy girl holding an infant, a blond boy who worked for Manet, a dark-haired street urchin named Alexandre, a strolling musician who earned his living in the neighborhood as an organ grinder, Colardet from The Absinthe Drinker, and an old man named Guéroult. Some interpret the painting as the “ages of man.”

Édouard Manet; The Old Musician, 1862; Oil on canvas; National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Again, Manet referenced several well-known sources –  

the multiple focal points of Velázquez’s The Triumph of Bacchus or Los Borrachos/The Drunkards (1628-29; Oil on canvas; Museo del Prado, Madrid),

the existential suffering of Jean-Antoine Watteau’s sad clown, Pierrot (1718-19; Oil on canvas; Musée de Louvre, Paris),

the bust of ancient Greek philosopher Chrysippus of Soli in the Louvre (Roman copy after a lost Hellenistic original of the late 3rd century BCE; Marble), 

and Murillo’s paintings of street urchins.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo; Boys Playing Dice, 1665-70; Oil on canvas; Alte Pinakothek, Munich

The Old Musician was Manet’s largest canvas (approx. 6 feet x 8 feet; 187 x 248 cm) and most ambitious painting so far. This blend of references from past masterpieces with figures who seem emotionally detached became part of Manet’s portrayals of modern life. He intended to submit the painting to the Salon jury but changed his mind.

He entered a more appealing subject to next Salon and it was accepted. His debut into the art world was admired for its popular Spanish theme.


Manet composed the painting in his studio using a model and props. The left-handed singer holds a guitar strung for a right-handed player and his fingering suggests that he’s never played a guitar. His outfit was fashioned from costumes that Manet kept on hand in his studio.

Note how the figure passes directly from shadow to light. The technique isolates and shifts the figure forward.

Édouard Manet; The Spanish Singer, 1860; Oil on canvas; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The following year, Manet chose another Spanish motif. However, people wondered why his female model was dressed as a male espada (matador). 

Édouard Manet; Mademoiselle V. . . in the Costume of an Espada, 1862; Oil on canvas; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Society portrait painters occasionally abridged the recognizable last name of their sitter to a letter of the alphabet (ex: John Singer Sargent’s Madame X). With this title, Manet coyly suggests that he’s hiding the identity of his sitter while knowing everyone would recognize the artist’s model, Victorine Meurent. 

Her pose combines the stances of Raphael’s Temperance and Justice.

Marcantonio Raimondi after Raphael; Left, Temperance and Right, Justice, c. 1515-25; Engravings; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The matadors were taken from Goya’s Tauromaquia (The Art of Bullfighting) series. 

Francisco Goya; El Animoso Moro Gazul Es el Primero Que Lanceó Toros en Regla (The Spirited Moor Gazul Is the First to Spear Bulls According to Rules), 1815-16; Etching and aquatint; Philadelphia Museum of Art

The background was a response to a “very significant Velázquez” that had just been acquired by the Louvre, where the recession into space is implied by layers of tonal (light and dark) horizontal bands.

Workshop of Velázquez; Philip IV as a Hunter, c. 1632; Oil on canvas; Musée Goya, Castres

Manet’s interpretation of the tonal bands, however, flattens the background, as if his model posed in front of a backdrop. 

This flatness is enhanced by how the figure was painted. 

To form the illusion that something recedes and curves gradually into the depth of the flat canvas, artists use subtly complicated transitions and passages of mid-tones (the intermediates between extremes of light and dark).

Thomas Eakins; A Woman’s Back (Study), 1887; Oil on wood; Philadelphia Museum of Art

Manet, however, omits mid-tones in her dark clothing so it vividly contrasts against the light background to propel her figure toward the viewer.

That doesn’t mean her clothes were painted as a solid patch of black. Look closely and track the path of his brush as it follows the roundness of her form. Find the brushed-in shadows. As one black tone transitioned into another, instead of using the traditional technique of layering levels of oil paint in a manner so that the desired color tone (lightness or darkness of a color) showed through, he mixed each specific black tone and brushed it onto the canvas. The technique was very avant-garde.

Manet later discovered that the painting of Philip IV he sourced (below, left) was not by Velázquez. The original (below, right) was, and still is, at the Prado; the one he saw at the Louvre was a studio copy.

Left: Workshop of Velázquez; Philip IV as a Hunter, c. 1632; Oil on canvas; Musée Goya, Castres and Right: Velázquez; Philip IV in Hunting Dress, 1632-43; Oil on canvas; Museo del Prado, Madrid

By misinterpreting Velázquez’s original, Manet reinvented how artists might depict the relationship between the illusion of perspective and the flat plane of the canvas. Mademoiselle V. . . in the Costume of an Espada looked so strange at the time that people assumed that he was either making fun of art or didn’t know how to paint. 

Throughout the 1860s, Manet often conferred a modern take on Spanish references. 

Top: Francisco Goya; La Maja Vestida (Clothed Maja), c. 1803; Oil on canvas; Museo del Prado, Madrid and Bottom: Édouard Manet; Reclining Young Woman in Spanish Costume, 1862-63; Oil on canvas; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut

Édouard Manet; Young Man in the Costume of a Majo, 1863; Oil on canvas; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The model, Manet’s younger brother Gustave, wears the same trousers and bolero jacket worn by the model in Mademoiselle V. . . in the Costume of an Espada

Submitted and rejected for the Salon of 1863, it was included in the Salon des Refusés (exhibition of rejected works) that same year. Critics found the majo’s inexplicably indifferent expression unappealing.

In 1864, Manet exhibited a painting entitled Incident at a Bullfight at the Salon. The perspective was so off – the bull was so small that was obvious that he’d never seen a bullfight – that it became the subject of ridicule. After the exhibition, Manet cut up the canvas into sections and the austere, unsettling The Dead Toreador is one of those salvaged segments. The indefinite background and the foreshortening of the body (a technique that produces the illusion of projection into space) concentrate attention on the dead body. Bright colors are limited to the cape and the pool of deep maroon blood under his shoulder. 

Critics viewed The Dead Toreador’s extreme sparseness as technical clumsiness. Three years later it received silver medal at an exhibition and soon after, a critic called it “a masterpiece of drawing, and the most complete symphony in black major ever attempted.’’ Henri Matisse described it as “one of the most beautiful Manets.’’

Left: Italian (once attributed to Velázquez; A Dead Soldier, 1600s; Oil on canvas; The National Gallery, London and Right: Édouard Manet; The Dead Toreador, c. 1864-65; Oil on canvas; National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

When Manet’s Olympia debuted at the 1865 Salon, a tribute to the Venetian master Titian, viewers crowded in front of it and shouted in disgust. Guards were called in to protect the canvas from the art students who were trying to tear it off the wall. 

Left; Titian; Venus of Urbino, 1538; Oil on canvas; Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence and Right: Édouard Manet; Olympia, 1863; Oil on canvas; Musée d’Orsay, Paris

The reviews were so ruthless that in the late summer of 1865, Manet traveled to the Museo del Prado in Madrid to “seek advice” from Velázquez.  

He wrote about the experience. Velázquez is “the supreme artist; he didn’t surprise me, he enchanted me.”

“The most extraordinary piece in this splendid oeuvre, and possibly the most extraordinary piece of painting that has ever been done, is a portrait [of a] famous actor at the time of Philip IV; the background disappears, there’s nothing but air that surrounds the fellow, who is all in black and appears alive. . . .” 

Diego Velázquez; Pablo de Valladolid, c. 1635; Oil on canvas; Museo del Prado, Madrid 

“I’ve really come to know Velázquez and I tell you he’s the greatest artist there has ever been; I saw thirty or forty of his canvases in Madrid, portraits and other things, all masterpieces . . . “


“ the philosophers, both amazing pieces. . . all the dwarfs [bufónes, or court jesters at the royal palace], one in particular seen sitting with his hands on his hips (Don Sebastián de Morra). . . “  

This work is one in a series of portraits by Velázquez of court jesters at the royal palace. Note the visible brushwork, the relationship of the figure to the surrounding space, the lack of background details, the masterfully limited and subtle tonal variations within light and shadow that give corporal volume to the figure, and the emotional impact of the figure’s direct gaze.

Diego Velázquez; Bufón Don Sebastián de Morra, c. 1646; Oil on canvas; Museo del Prado

Manet returned home, began three new works, and paired them with The Absinthe Drinker under the collective title Philosophers. A friend who couldn’t understand why Manet thought that the unsentimental realism of a beggar with oysters was appropriate subject for art made a brusque critique. A duel ensued.

Left to Right: Édouard Manet; The Absinthe Drinker,1859; Oil on canvas; Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen / Beggar with a Duffle Coat, 1860-70; Oil on canvas; Art Institute of Chicago / Beggar with Oysters, 1865-67; Oil on canvas; Art Institute of Chicago / The Ragpicker, c. 1865-70; Oil on canvas; Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, California

The distance between Manet’s references to the Spanish masters increased as his personal style developed.

Left: Francisco Goya; Majas en el balcón (Majas on Balcony), 1800-12; Oil on canvas; Rothschild Private Collection and Right: Édouard Manet; Le balcon (The Balcony), 1868; Oil on canvas; Musée d’Orsay, Paris

The sharp contrast of black and white, the green shutters, and the vertical lines of the balcony railing flatten space and emphasize the women in the shallow foreground. Although scenes of the bourgeoisie, the increasing wealthy middle class who had leisure time and money to spend, were in vogue, when The Balcony was presented at the 1869 Salon, this enigmatic group portrait was overwhelmingly misunderstood. There’s no obvious narrative and none of the figures interact. Critic and caricaturist Cham complained, “Close the shutters!” 

The Franco Prussian War of 1870 divided Manet’s career into two divergent halves. When the war ended, he moved his studio to new location and abandoned the Café Guerbois for the Café de la Nouvelle Athènes in a recently constructed area of Paris.

There, he and his friends, who included a group of aspiring artists who saw Manet as the leader of an avant-garde movement, engaged in spirited, intellectual discussions. These younger artists would soon be known as the Impressionists. Manet’s color choices became brighter, his brushwork freer. 

Left: Édouard Manet; The Folkestone Boat, Boulogne, c. 1868-72 and Right; Portrait of Isabelle Lemonnier, 1877; Both oil on canvas; Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Impressionists invited Manet to join them when they exhibited together for the first time in 1874. He declined, preferring to submit his works to the Salon. Argenteuil was accepted; The Artist  was not. 

Left: Édouard Manet; Argenteuil, 1874; Oil on canvas, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Tournai and Right: The Artist – Portrait of Marcellin Desboutin, 1875; Oil on canvas; São Paulo Museum of Art

Manet appears in several of his own paintings but only made two self-portraits, both in the same year, when he was forty-seven and confined to his studio due to complications from illness. Self-Portrait with Palette, below, (1878-79; Oil on canvas; Private Collection) characterizes much of his work – broad strokes of color, a vacant background, and contrasting colors that isolate and pull a figure forward. Manet appropriated his pose from Velázquez’s self-portrait in Las Meninas, and also, like Velázquez, forgoes what he’d actually wear while working for something more fashionable. Because Manet was right-handed, it’s believed he composed his self-portrait while looking in a mirror.

In 1879, Manet, in severe pain from a leg ailment that would eventually lead to his death in 1883, sought hydrotherapy treatment at a spa in the town of Bellevue. While there, he met opera singer Émilie Ambre (the former mistress of King William III of Holland). She’d recently performed the title role in George Bizet’s new opera, Carmen, in the United States.

Carmen, a gypsy who works in a cigarette factory in Seville, entices Don José, a corporal, away from military service and into a life of crime (the aria Habanera, or Love is a rebellious bird that none can tame). After she declares her love for a matador, Don José stabs her in a jealous rage outside of a bullring Carmen, Final Scene. She dies like gored bull.

When the opera made its world debut in Paris in 1975, the audience was so horrified by the plot and the hip-swinging gyrations of the gypsies (then, dancing in opera was performed by graceful ballerinas in pastel tulle) that by the end performance on opening night, only four people remained in the theater.

Célestine Galli-Marié, the first singer to play the role of Carmen, in costume; Photo Atelier Nadar, 1875-83

The opera’s second act opens inside a tavern where Carmen and her friends sing with the rhythm of the percussion, tambourines, and guitars of the music that’s bewitching the gypsies to dance. The aria, Les tringles des sistres tintaient (Danse Bohème), combines visual descriptions and sound (“the rods of the sistra tinkle with metallic brightness”). The non-narrative refrain (“tra lalalala”) recurs at crucial moments throughout the opera to mark Carmen’s unwillingness to conform to bourgeois standards. 

This is the moment that Manet chose to paint Ambre as Carmen. Through the medium of paint, he challenged his brush to achieve what Bizet had achieved.

Édouard Manet; Portrait of Émilie Ambre as Carmen, 1880; Oil on canvas; Philadelphia Museum of Art

Her face is divided into distinct areas of light and shadow, as if a strong stage light were shining on her from our right. The area above her right eye is highlighted with a dab of white paint that pulls down in a broken stroke to the side of her face, down her cheek, and up under her lip. 

Thick commas of gold paint suggest the gold decoration of her bolero jacket. Broad areas of white and beige capture the sway of the fringe on her sleeves. Manet cleverly included a small quarter-note at the bottom edge of her shawl (left side of canvas). 

Patches of paint suggest that light is flickering over the lacy surface of the mantilla.

Strokes (“taches”) of paint play several roles. Across her bodice, they describe decorative closures or bows, drip and coagulate in thick droplets to prophesy her fatal stab wounds, and resonate the tempo of his brush.

The blurry brushstrokes of the fan imply movement, that she’s just begun to open the fan and will soon sing.

He doesn’t convey the very different textures that the lacquered fan and the soft fringe hanging directly it would have in real life. This isn’t academic art’s “window to the real world.” That he selected and applied each color, from the start, for its final effect (alla prima painting) and allowed the image to grow under his brush is quite visible. He wants us to notice the materials and process used to make this portrait for they remind us that, like Bizet, Manet composed a performance piece and the canvas is his stage. 

The year after he painted Émilie Ambre, Manet received a second-class medal from the Salon for his portrait of writer Henri Rochefort. The award meant that his paintings no longer needed to endure the jury selection process and would be automatically accepted for exhibition. 

A few months later, he was made Chevalier (knight) de la Légion d’honneur, a recognition some thought he should have refused.

Édouard Manet; Portrait of Henri Rochefort, 1881; Oil on canvas; Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg

The Bar at the Folies-Bergère, Manet’s magnum opus, was exhibited in the Salon of 1882. The venue offered circus, musical, and vaudeville acts. Terminally ill, he made sketches on-site and completed the painting in his studio.

Édouard Manet; The Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1881-82; Oil on canvas; Courtauld, London

Manet placed the model, Suzon, a real barmaid from the Folies-Bergère, in front of a table in the studio that improvised as a bar. She stands at the center in front a shallow space and a slightly smudged, gold-framed mirror. The legs of one of the performers, the chandelier, the crowd in front her, her back, and the patron who faces her on the other side of the counter are all reflected in the mirror. Interpretations, especially of the indifferent, tired facial expression of the barmaid and of the shifted perspective of the mirror, have been debated since its debut.

Manet sought the acceptance of the official Salon throughout his career; in sum, fifteen of his paintings were accepted between 1861 and 1882. 

Look at his paintings slowly and thoroughly to see why he’s known as the Father of Modern Art. The Impressionists adopted and significantly extended alla prima painting to capture fleeting moments of light. 

Manet died at age fifty-one, before his paintings were celebrated as masterpieces of their time. His most controversial paintings, whether in the Louvre or in other museums throughout the world, hang among the works of many of the old masters who inspired him.

Nadar; Photograph of Édouard Manet, c. 1867-70

– Meighan Maley

Header Image: Flamingos in Fuente de Piedra Lagune, Málaga, Spain


Brown, Marilyn R. “Manet’s ‘Old Musician’: Portrait of a Gypsy and Naturalist Allegory.” Studies in the History of Art, vol. 8, 1978, pp. 77–87.

Italian; A Dead Soldier; National

Manet; Au Café Guerbois; Arts and

Manet; Beggar with a Duffle Coat and Beggar with Oysters; Art Institute of Chicago

Manet; En garde: Manet’s Portrait of Emilie Ambre in the Role of Bizet’s Carmen; Therese Dolan; PhD; Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide

Manet; Lake Oswego School District, Oregon

Manet; Portrait of Émilie Ambre as Carmen; Philadelphia Museum of Art

Manet; Publications Art Institute of Chicago – Manet 

Manet; The Balcony; Musée d’Orsay

Manet; The Bar at the Folies-Bergère;

Manet; The Old Musician; National Gallery of

Manet; The Spanish Singer; Metropolitan Museum of Art

Manet and the Impressionists; Art History Unstuffed


Tinterow G, et. al (2003); Manet / Velázquez The French Taste for Spanish Painting. The Metropolitan Museum of Art; Publications

Velázquez; Menippus and Aesop; Museo del Prado

Velázquez; Smithsonian


  1. Wow…this article covers a profound chapter in modern art….fascinating and so interesting Meighan. The visuals are superb..hard take it in with one read…this is one I will. Continue to reread.

    …and when are you finding time to do this 🙂


    Thomas Lo E:



    1. Thank you, Tom! I didn’t appreciate the extent of influence of the Spanish masters. There is a wide opinion that the impetus for modern art began when the Spanish gallery in the Louvre was open for those 10 years. It’s fascinating! (I wanted to finish this before starting the museum’s Early American art tour . . . now you know why I won’t be ready until Fall!)


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