̶ 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.