Manet's individual attitude


Nothing in Manet's bourgeois antecedents seemed to predestine him for art. His father wanted to see him study law, but the young man stubbornly held out against this and was finally allowed to enroll in the studio of Thomas Couture, an academic painter of the dreariest kind who had made a great name for himself at the 1847 Salon with a mammoth historical painting full of extravagant architectural details. This work--The Roman Orgy, still in the Louvre and persistently reproduced in each new edition of the Larousse--is nicely described in these words of Baudelaire, written in 1851: "They throw together a bunch of wretches, male and female, got up like so many butcherboys and washerwomen off on a binge, they ask these heroic figures to be good enough to keep their improvised leers going full tilt for the time required to complete the operation, and then they fondly imagine that they have rendered another tragic or colorful episode of ancient history." Baudelaire, in this instance, was speaking of a practice then greatly in vogue amongst photographers. But these elaborate pastries were nothing in comparison with Couture Orgy, a finicking, supremely insipid piece of painting preening itself in all the vulgar ostentation of the "grand manner."
Manet, as might be expected, was ill at ease in Couture's studio. His fellow student there, Antonin Proust, has left us a vivid account of his reaction to Couture's methods.
"On Mondays," wrote Proust, "when the pose was set for the whole week, Manet invariably got into a tiff with the models. It was customary for them, as soon as they stood up on the table, to strike some ridiculous attitude.
"`Why the devil can't you be natural?'Manet used to exclaim. 'Is that the way you stand when you go to the grocer's to buy a bunch of radishes?'
"Finally he got hold of a model named Donato who, I believe, later became an actor in one of the boulevard theaters and, after that, a mesmerizer somewhere. Everything went fine to begin with. But it wasn't long before Donato, after spending a little time with the other models, was sticking his chest out with the best of them, bulging his muscles and taking heroic poses. Manet was heart-broken."
Further on, though getting away from Manet's basic attitude to these methods of teaching, Proust brings out the animosity that arose between pupil and teacher.
"One day he managed to get Gilbert, the model, to take up a simple pose, partially clothed. When Couture walked into the studio and saw that the model had his clothes on, he burst out angrily:
"'Is Gilbert being paid to pose with his clothes on? Whose stupid idea is this?'
"'Mine,' spoke up Manet.
"`Poor dear boy! If you go on like this you'll never be anything but the Daumier of our time.'"
Alone with Proust, Manet shook his head:
"'Daumier! I could do worse. After all, that's better than being the Coypel of our time.'"
These incidents show us Manet resisting--as young men are wont to do--what the past attempted to foist on him. But his individual attitude was the first sign of a fundamentad change soon to come over all European painting. Hitherto hedd in representational service, it now began moving towards the autonomy it has enjoyed since Manet's time. From the moment the model's extravagant pose got on his nerves, the issue was no longer in doubt. What Manet insisted upon, uncompromisingly, was an end to rhetoric in painting. What he insisted upon was painting that should rise in utter freedom, in natural silence, painting for its own sake, a song for the eyes of interwoven forms and colors.


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