manet’s gaze


It is often said that Manet invented modern painting. He challenged the limits of the canvas frame, distorting perspective and depth, framing scenes as if with the lens of a camera, such that we only get part of the scene, bodies and rooms only partly in view. He also used heavily pronounced brushwork that constantly reminds us we are looking at paint on a canvas. Look at “Portrait of Emilie Ambre as Carmen” (1880), its quick brushstrokes create feathery outlines of body and costume, creating a swirl of color and light. Her face is the most detailed part of the work, the luminous white paint conveying a theatrical light giving the opera’s singer’s face clarity and depth. He also turned his attention away from the academic demands of grand historical scenes and, like the Impressionists whom he kept at a distance, made everyday moments of middle-class Parisian life, of street encounters and Opera lobbies, bar crowds and park strollers legitimate subjects of painting. Such scenes are also quite secular, absent religious or nationalist interests. They direct their gaze at the bourgeoisie’s own individual tastes and desires. And in this way, these paintings are pure theater. They turn the life of the city into painterly scenes, making the casual in own alluring spectacle.

more from James Polchin at The Smart Set here.