̶ Sprague, tell me now about Manet’s bouquets.
Pungent lemon, bitter orange: I sip my Cointreau.
̶ Come on, tell me.
You extend a leg and rub my shin with your foot.
̶ All right, Marietta.
Closing the curtain of your kimono, you draw your knees up to your chin.
̶ Are you ready? I ask you.
̶ I’m ready to ravish you!
̶ Be patient. We’ve got all night.
You are alert, poised, ready to receive: I must not disappoint your eager expectation.
̶ Okay. Listen. It’s the last year of Manet’s life. He’s fifty-one, and he’s in the terminal stage of syphilis. The lightning pains in his legs are excruciating; on the soles of his feet, the ulcers won’t heal—walking is all but impossible. He spends the summer at a rented house in Rueil-Malmaison. In September he returns to Paris to write his last will and testament. He leaves everything to his wife Suzanne and son Léon.
̶ Suzanne? Wasn’t she a painter too?
̶ No. You must be thinking of Suzanne Valadon. She was the love of Satie’s life—until he pushed her out a window and decided love is a sickness of the nerves, something best to avoid.
̶ I agree with him on that! Did she die, Suzanne Valadon?
̶ No, she had been a trapeze artist: She knew how to fall.
Would I know how to fall?
̶ Anyway, Manet’s Suzanne was a Dutch woman, a dull person by all accounts, who’d been a piano teacher to Manet and his brothers. When Manet was nineteen they began sleeping together, and a few days after his twentieth birthday Suzanne gave birth to a son.
̶ Suzanne, having left and returned, passed her son off as her brother—all her life she maintained this lie—and Manet became the child’s godfather. He thus had a secret family, which he set up in a little apartment.
̶ Like Louis Kahn!
Did not my mother have a secret family too?
̶ Exactly. Twelve years later, after Manet’s father died, the couple got married in Holland. Have you heard of Berthe Morisot?
̶ Yes. She was a painter, an Impressionist.
̶ That’s right. Well, Berthe loved Manet all her life. Unable to marry him, she married his brother. All Manet’s portraits of her speak of this love.
̶ Have you seen any of them?
̶ Yes. I remember one where she’s all in black, holding a bunch of violets.
̶ That painting’s pure poetry! It’s a definition of the feminine.
̶ She is lovely, yes.
In the only photo I have of Jag, she is holding a bunch of violets.
̶ But to get back to the flowers—Have you seen A Bar at the Folies Bergères?
̶ Yes. I saw it last year in London.
̶ That’s Manet’s last major painting. Do you like it?
̶ Very much. It’s so… mysterious.
̶ Yes. When you look at it, you become indistinguishable from what you’re looking at. And what you don’t see is as important as what you do.
̶ Like in Olympia.
Flesh and blood infused with ice and fire: The self-possessed cannot be possessed.
̶ Yes. Well, after painting that masterpiece, Manet had less than a year to live. In the last months of his life, before the attacks of fulgurating pain and the fever started, leading to the amputation of his gangrenous leg, he would lie on the divan in his studio, reading. When he could sit up he would paint. And what he painted are these bouquets.
I get up and give you my hand.
̶ Come, let’s take a closer look.
Pinks and Clematis in a Crystal Vase; Roses, Carnations and Pansies: The first two paintings in the linear arrangement offer us the purity of their presence—fluid, spontaneous, direct, they are paint made flower, word made flesh.
̶ Satie’s music goes perfectly with these paintings.
̶ It does, yes.
The modal harmonies and lilting melodies of Gymnopédies do indeed echo the silence of Manet’s bouquets.
̶ So, Manet’s holed up in his studio, unable to stand up, and a woman comes to visit and presents him with a bouquet. Maybe even before she leaves, Manet’s begun painting it. It’s an act of love, a way to feel alive.
Roses and Lilacs and Lilacs in a Glass show us that as Manet approaches death, his brush has indeed never been more alive, responsive, engaged.
̶ They’re really lovely!
̶ Yes. Now think of Manet’s private life. He’s married to a plodding woman he doesn’t love, and the woman he could have been happy with is married to his brother. As for his child, nobody recognizes Manet and Léon as father and son, not even Manet and Léon themselves.
Is there not a similar story in my mother’s family?
̶ But what does that have to do with these flowers, Sprague?
̶ Well, these flowers are the expression of grace. They show that no matter what the personal failure, no matter what the professional success, when death comes—and death is always coming—
̶ Even now, as we speak?
Taking you in my arms, I shut your mouth with a kiss.
̶ When death comes, these flowers show that the only thing that counts are little acts of kindness. And the kindness that meant the most to Manet was the kindness of women.
We head back to the sofa.
̶ Next time you look at Manet’s paintings of women, notice how each woman is individualized, often strikingly so. Each has a strong personal identity.
You sit down beside me.
̶ I’ve noticed that. His women are self-aware, they have a life of their own.
̶ Yes, self-reliant. And that’s very rare—you hardly find it in representations of women by Manet’s contemporaries.
You pick up your Cointreau tonic…
̶ So there you have it, Marietta, that’s the story of these bouquets. They’re emblems of vulnerability, of courage and kindness.
…and drink up the little that’s left.
̶ Another, Sprague, fix me another!
As you hold out your glass, the sparkle in your eyes is a promise: Of what, I don’t know, but I do know it will be exciting.
Drinks in hand, I step back into the living room and stop dead in my tracks: In negligent folds your kimono flows, spilling its black onto the red of the carpet; upon the carpet, a tumbled vortex bowl scatters mandarins and avocados. Behind it you sit naked, an elbow resting on your knee, a hand holding your chin. Between thigh and arm your breast stands bold; only your unframed face (you’ve pinned up your hair), illuminated by the unflinching eyes fixing me, violates the profile of your body. I put down the drinks and align my body opposite yours on the floor. Your foot between my legs, I lean back and take up a lounging, lifted-arm pose. Holding it isn’t easy; relieving me, you spring forward and pin me to the floor, laughing. I press your nakedness to my vestments; I pull the stick out of your hair.
̶ Was I a good Déjeuner?
̶ As good as Victorine! And worthy of Manet.
As you shake loose your hair, I determine to be worthy of him too.
When you surprised yourself in the mirror, when you became a stranger to yourself, who was the who you dreamt yourself to be?
̶ Mirror, mirror, tell no lies, how do I look in Manet’s eyes?
̶ In daubs of pure colour and blurred contours, in rough, painterly brushstrokes, you flaunt your wanton beauty in the face of all who would confront you. The shriek of the cat your chatte knows that but her hackled back is not your bent: Neither scorn nor adulation, neither odium nor idolization, can disturb your composure. Here there is no erotic mirage, nothing to trap desire; here there is only flesh and blood infused with ice and fire: The self-possessed cannot be possessed.
Manet located his artistic practice at the centre not of a professional world separate from the ‘natural’ world of social relations, but of that natural world itself. Manet’s persona as artist and his social practice were mutually reinforcing. So, toward the end of his career, the still-life, usually fruits or flowers, became instruments in Manet’s social relations. The objects themselves performed social acts. He used them as marks of homage or admiration–as offerings, like the bouquets they sometimes pictured. (Mallarmé frequently did the same with little poems.) They suggest a man of breeding and gentility, who can afford the generosity of time and effort to bestow a bouquet of visual poetry on a friend. The first of these gifts was the Bunch of Violets with a Fan, the exquisite little composition of 1872, signed and dedicated to Berthe Morisot. The combination of bouquet and fan alludes of course to Manet’s earlier portraits of her. In those portraits, The Balcony and Berthe Morisot with a Bunch of Violets, they were more than props; they were important elements of an arrangement in which figures and objects were part of a larger compositional ‘still-life’. And in contrast to the picturesque use Manet made of props, such as in the Boy with a Sword, these objects are clues to ‘Morisot’s taste and social status. In a sense, the picture of 1872 is his friend remembered by her attributes; it is the sign of his friend metonymically transformed into still-life–into art. Again, the objects embody the figure, the part refers to the whole.
In 1880 Manet sold his Bunch of Asparagus to Charles Ephrussi, who overpaid its price of 800 francs by two hundred more. In response, Manet sent the small Asparagus with a note that played on the illusionistic function of art: ‘Your bunch was one too short.’ (The painting of an asparagus was a substitute for the asparagus itself.) Here, the slight, informal still-life became a gift conveying not just affection, but a sense of pride and fairness that prevented Manet from accepting deliberate overpayment without some gesture in return. It deftly reaffirmed his status as artist, distinct from the artisan who merely fabricates commercial products, and that of an equal in the society of his patron. Along with the letter, it was a good-humoured gesture of control over his work that maintained its fiction as a vehicle of social rather than overtly economic transaction.
Two years later Manet dedicated a small picture of Three Apples to Méry Laurent. Like Morisot, Laurent was a close friend Manet frequently used as a model. Perhaps paintings such as this one and the Bunch of Violets can be related to the Asparagus as forms of compensation, in this case for the models’ efforts. Following Manet’s play on the illusionistic function of painting, painted apples or flowers are gallant little gifts, such as would have been the objects themselves, except they are here transformed into new objects of the sort these women had made it possible for Manet to create with themselves as his subject-matter (i.e. objects). Having in a sense possessed Morisot and Laurent through his painting, Manet returned to them something of that which they had given him. Such an offering may be an apology of sorts for the time and boredom of posing. But even while showing affection for women who, unlike Victorine, were not paid professionals, what Manet rendered to them was again an affirmation of the artist’s transformative vision. As with the Asparagus, the still-life satisfied Manet’s sense of fairness in a situation where not only could he not take something without offering a token in return, but where the final word in a visual statement reaffirmed that statement as an expression of his own artistic self.
In a series of letters sent to friends, Manet extended such gestures to the paper on which his notes were written. Using a watercolour of a fruit as a sort of letterhead or watermark, he alluded to a kind of equivalency between his own identity and the painting of a still-life. A series of such letters addressed to Isabelle Lemonnier clearly suggests the role of artistic self-image in a game of seduction. One, with a mirabelle plum, contains the following verses:
et la plus belle
In another, with a peach, he writes: ‘Dear Mademoiselle, It is not my fault if the peaches are ugly at Bellecour, but the prettiest girl can only give what she has—Write to me of the events on the beach.’ Manet was ill during the summer of these and other notes in which he gently pleaded with Isabelle to keep him abreast of the social events he was missing. He hoped to entice her at least to answer, that he might continue to partake of (to possess a part of) the social scene. Another billet, with an almond and the word ‘Philippine’, fits exactly into such a scheme. According to a French custom, the first to find a double fruit and call out ‘Philippine!’ could claim a present from the other. What gift could Manet have more desired than a reply from Isabelle—than a written representation, that is, of herself?
Like the offerings to other women, especially to Morisot, Manet’s bright and clever works belong to a project of dissimulation. Here, of course, bouquets allude to favours done or hoped for; as I mentioned earlier, they speak of the unspeakable. Nowhere is their silent testimony more eloquent than in the increasingly frequent flower pieces Manet did at the end of his career. With his health deteriorating, he was confined to bed early in April 1883; he died on the last day of that month. In his final year or so, continuing right through those final weeks, he painted a number of small canvases based on flowers that were often sent or brought to him by friends. Tokens of their feelings, these bouquets became the motivation for Manet’s art now functioning on its most basic level. The artist’s response to their gesture of caring was the act of painting—which used the flowers as its excuse, but which had always reinforced his social bonds. Here it approaches an act of love returned.
To paint these blossoms surely extended the pleasure Manet took in contemplating them and savouring their associations. Through such stand-ins, he could hold his friends close. What better offering to an artist than the object of beauty that epitomizes and gives rise to his art? What better way to cherish that offering than to immortalize it? Slight as they appear at first glance, then, these paintings summarize the links between Manet’s art and his immediate world, the sine qua non of his art. Aesthetic performance was both the motivation and the product of that life, and these late bouquets go to the very heart of that symbiosis. Thus it is certainly appropriate to find front and centre in Manet’s last major painting, the Bar at the Folies-Bergère, a flower arrangement much like those of his final years. It stands there like the signature of his debonair consciousness. Similarly, the delicate petals at the barmaid’s bosom are like the signature of his poetics of bouquets.
None of these paintings bears the slightest visible hint of sadness or regret. Other than our own knowledge that blooms are destined to wilt, there is no overt link to the theme of vanity or the transitory. Their cheerfulness may imply Manet’s disdain for conventional and laboured emotion; perhaps they testify to the importance of outward appearances–of persona and of spectacle–in his world. They are certainly far from a ‘realistic’ recognition of his failing strength; they are more a refuge from it. Their vibrancy celebrates the joy of colour and delicate form, the vitality and refinement of a life in art. On the verge of death, the artist creates what appears to be its opposite. Yet despite the brilliance of these works, the interdependence of opposites such as celebration/mourning, artifice/reality and figuration/ defiguration that is ever present in bouquets is nowhere better embodied than through these late ones. For in their particular case, their affirmation of the material realm is also quite literally a dissimulation of its potential loss. They are like enactments–performances, rather than allegories–on the eternal theme of vanitas. Their very presence, in the context of the medical facts and social relations of Manet’s final year, embodies the bittersweet poignance of mortality. When one plucks the flower, however exquisite the arrangement it engenders, there is no pretence that its beauty will last.
Most of us lead relatively separate social and professional lives. In the nineteenth century the vast majority of artists outside the avant-garde still acted as if art were a career rather than a calling, although in opposition to official figures like Ingres there existed the highly personal alternative exemplified by Delacroix. Manet seems to have achieved a harmonious integration of the two extremes. Hardly the lofty academic or the romantic rebel, he made art a natural and a social activity rather than a marginal or commercial one. Manet’s social origins and attitudes help explain this phenomenon. That a man of the upper bourgeoisie would make art his profession testifies of course to an important evolution. The Romantic notion of artistic genius and superiority was attracting practitioners whose ambitions had nothing to do with careerism and could be a vehicle (as was especially the case for Degas) for a certain social superiority based on ‘vision’, taste and intellect.
Although Manet’s persistent originality placed him outside the professional mainstream, his obvious identification with the Parisian world of the new intellectual and leisure class has in the end made him seem more mainstream than the so-called professionals of his day—the Gérômes and the Bouguereaus. Not only does Manet’s art represent the world of his class—its places and its social practices—it is so infused by its pleasure-oriented values that its apparent radicalism of artistic language comfortably became its emblem. Manet’s painting cultivates ordinary objects to the pleasure-seeking ends of the casual, yet discerning eye. Eschewing the expression of effort embodied by formal and finished work, it implies the warmth and affection of the amateur, a man of leisure, and the informality of the rapid sketcher and flâneur, rather than the laboriousness and moral ambition of the professional. The later, Impressionist paintings were not conceived as museum paintings; they evoke not the public dialogue of the Salon but the privacy of domestic surroundings. Even in his more formal and programmatic works, Manet’s attitude is to appropriate the world to his personal aesthetic rather than to adjust his art to the profession. Thus, Manet’s way of seeing, increasingly rooted in his private life, is his world; and for his art to express the world through his way of seeing is to express the position of his eye within it—diffident, of course, but embedded (immersed) at its very centre.
John Everett Millais
Tamara de Lempicka
Nicolas de Staël
Hans Holbein, Younger
Vincent Van Gogh
Caspar David Friedrich
Leda and the Swan