Manet’s men – studies in black and grey

The Artist: Portrait of Marcellin Desboutin, 1875 (Museu de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand, São Paulo, Brazil)


We are more familiar with Manet’s images of women, mostly without their clothes on too, but at the impressive exhibition at London’s Royal Academy of Arts, Manet Portraying Life (until this Sunday, 14th April), there are some memorable portraits of his male friends and relations. Édouard Manet (1832-1883) loved women but he was also a highly clubbable male who enjoyed the company of his men friends and who expressed his respect and gratitude to a number of them, including the writer and painter, Marcellin Desboutin, in a series of characterful portraits that place Manet in the revered tradition of Velasquez  Goya and Hals.

The Smoker, 1866 ( Minneapolis Institute of Arts, USA)

Desboutin and the landscape painter, Joseph Gall, both obviously enjoyed their pipes and, in The Smoker, there is no question about Gall’s smoker’s contemplative pleasure. Here Manet celebrates the art of his admired 17th Century Spanish predecessors. He hasn’t adopted the earlier period’s fondness for allegory though, this man isn’t contemplating the transience of time. He is savouring the tobacco and thinking very personal thoughts that are none of our business.

Portrait of M. Antonin Proust, 1880 (Toledo Museum of Art, Spain)

Manet’s lifelong friend and biographer Antonin Proust (1832-1905) – no relation to Marcel Proust  – positively beams at his friend from this slightly tongue-in-cheek portrait of Proust in his dandyish finery. The affection between the two of them is palpable.

Émile Zola, 1868 (Kunsthall,
Bremen, Germany)

Manet not only admired the realist novelist and critic, Émile Zola, but he was grateful to him too for the writer’s defence of Manet’s artistic radicalism. The favour is returned in this crammed and relatively conventional portrait of Zola sitting, somehow squeezed into the foreground, in benign judgment on Manet’s place in the progressive art of late 19th. century France. As with his other portraits, he is as interested in making an interesting composition from a restricted palette of colours – his favourites, mostly black, grey and brown.

Stéphane Mallarmé, 1876 (Musée
d’Orsay, Paris, France)

The Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé admired Manet’s modernity and publicly defended the artist as his style moved away from the traditionally highly finished works of his youth. Manet’s portrait of Mallarmé is full of movement and light, mistily expressing the spirit of the poet in a picture where the concrete feels insubstantial and mysterious. Here, once more there is also a celebration of tobacco and the cigar smoke sharing the same consistency as the furniture and the fashionable Japanese wallpaper.

Portrait of the Animal Painter La Rochenoire, 1882 (Private collection)

Emile-Charles-Julien la Rochenoire (1825-1899), who specialised in painting animals, is one of Manet’s relatively few pastel portraits of men, most of them done in his last years. La Rochenoire’s average middle-aged male presence is animated by Manet’s energetic brushstrokes and by the exotic wallpaper that frames him.

Boy Blowing Bubbles, 1867 (Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, London)

In another of Manet’s works in homage of the old masters, the boy blowing bubbles, is Léon Leenhoff (1852-1927), the illegitimate son of Manet’s wife Suzanne Leenhoff. He may have been Manet’s son but there is no definitive evidence to prove it but he became Manet’s heir and his mother legitimized him in 1900. Whatever the birth details, Manet was fond of the boy and often used him as a model in his scenes of contemporary life. Here, as with The Smoker, the artist seems more interested in the contrasts of dark and light rather than any traditional allegorical reference to life’s transience.


The Luncheon, 1868 (Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich, Germany)

The sixteen year-old Léon stars as a moody teenager tottering on the verge of manhood in The Luncheon, with his back on the comfortable domesticity of the background and the sinister armoury of ‘masculine’ weapons on a chair next to him as he gazes introvertedly into space in another composition where Manet plays with the possibilities of black and grey.


The Velocipedie, 1871 (Private collection, Paris)

A couple of years later, Léon is seen pedalling furiously on the ‘bone-shaker’ a wooden precursor of the modern bicycle known as a velocipede then all the rage in fashionable Paris. The unfinished state of the portrait, another study in black and grey, only heightens the sense of speed and fun in what must have been a very uncomfortable ride.


Interior at Arcachon, 1871 (Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts, USA)

Maybe on the same seaside holiday in the Northern French resort of Arcachon as the adventure with the velocipede, Léon sits enjoying a cigarette in the holiday apartment with his mother Suzanne who looks cheerfully unconcerned by her son’s smoking habit as she looks out to sea with legs jauntily crossed. Manet made full use of his family as models and here, it is not important who these people are but their black clothed figures contrast dramatically with the grey walls and the loosely painted sea that we English call the English Channel.

Music in the Tuileries Gardens, 1862 (National Gallery, London, England)

Manet’s family and friends mingle with leading figures of Parisian modern art, in his group painting Music in the Tuileries Gardens. Manet himself stands looking at us on the extreme left of the frame and invites us to join what was then the progressive set. The men in the picture, as in so many of his portraits, are usefully dressed in the then gentlemanly uniform of black and grey. In Manet, it is the women who stand out as they undoubtedly did to him on his perambulations around Parisian society. No more so when they sit naked on the grass having lunch with the two respectably clad gentlemen in one of his most famous paintings, Déjeuner sur l’herbe, here the “other” version of the painting is in the exhibition, not a copy but a less ‘finished’ later version of the better known painting in the Musée d’Orsay.

Déjeuner sur l’herbe, c.1863-68
(Courtauld Gallery, London)

There has never been such a large collection of Manet’s portraits assembled in one exhibition so, if you want to see them, hurry along to London’s Royal Academy of Arts before the paintings are go back to their permanent homes on Sunday.

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