Although now one of the most famous painters in the history of art, Edouard Manet (1832-1883) was scorned and dismissed during his lifetime — and for nearly a century after it ended.  As Jack Flam (ArtNews, Summer 2011) notes:

What was long considered incompetence we now take to be at the core of Manet’s genius: his ability to invent new ways of capturing and holding in uneasy equilibrium the ambiguities – even the absurdities – of modern life. 

No where is this uneasy equilibrium more apparent than in one of the lesser known Manet paintings, Street Singer.

Right: Edouard Manet.  Street Singer, 1862.  Oil on canvas, 67 3/8″ by 41 5/8″.  Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Edouard Manet, one of the first painters to chronicle modern urban life, portrays a young woman exiting a debatablely tasteful Paris night club or cafe.  Although one of its doors is open, the interior is murky and vague. The directness of the singer’s gaze and her hand full of cherries draw the viewer to her eyes, which reveal deep thoughts unknowable to the viewer: did something untoward happen in the cafe? Is she hurrying to another unspecified engagement? Who provided her cherries? Manet captures a moment in time, one akin to a snapshot.

As in so many Manet paintings, the viewer is left to draw conclusions.

We’ve seen how Manet painted Olympia after one of the Titian paintings he saw in Paris, Venus of Urbino.  His comparison of himself to Titian, was, by many standards, an act of bravado. But he was to make another bold comparison in one of the best known Manet paintings, The Luncheon, or Luncheon in the Studio.

Luncheon is intriguingly inconclusive.  What may initially appear to be a dining room is instead an artist’s studio: the shucked but uneaten oysters, the dangling knife, and partially peeled lemon are frequent subjects of Dutch still life paintings.  The armor in the chair is also a still life subject, although lesser so.

Edouard Manet.  Luncheon in the Studio, 1868.  Oil on canvas, approx. 4′ by 5′. Bavarian State Paintings Collections, Neue Pinakothek. 

Above the bearded man’s head is a framed map, an allusion to the maps found in Vermeer paintings.  I would’ve missed this detail without Flam’s guidance — the letter “M” appears in the coffee pot reflection, an echo of the “M” by which Vermeer sometimes signed his paintings.

Was Manet intimating that he was a painter of the same caliber as Vermeer? I vote yes — an artist who compared himself to Titian would have no hesitation with comparision to another of the most famous painters, Vermeer!

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