Fish and Shrimp

oil painting of dead fish on table

Fish and Shrimp, 1864
Oil on canvas
17 5/8 × 28 3/4 in. (44.8 × 73 cm)
Norton Simon Art Foundation, Pasadena, California

 

By 1863, Manet’s often provocative subject matter had exasperated critics. “He has all the harshness of a green fruit that will never ripen,” one wrote. But when Manet’s virtuosic paint handling was applied to inoffensive still-life subjects, such as this, his talent was difficult to deny. As Émile Zola declared in 1867, well before Manet entered the artistic canon, his still lifes had become “masterpieces for everyone.”

Fish and Shrimp is from a group of early still lifes painted on the heels of a summer holiday in Boulogne-sur-Mer and shown at Louis Martinet’s gallery on the Boulevard des Italiens in 1865. It survives in a pristine condition that seems momentarily to freeze Manet’s dynamic brush: high peaks and deep valleys of paint shape the needlefish’s head, wispy strokes capture the shrimps’ antennae, and a veritable frenzy of paint applied wet-on-wet rises to create the salmon’s scaly chest. In addition to his technique, Manet’s decision to keep the wrapper of the fishmonger’s shop and use it to frame his subject underscores the modernity of an ostensibly timeless subject.

Late in life, Manet relayed to the artist Charles Toché that “a painter can say all he wants to say with fruit or flowers or even a cloud.” Toché recounts that as they strolled together through Venice’s old fish market, Manet “bubbled over with delight at the sight of the enormous fish with their silver bellies,” telling his companion, “You know, I should like to be the St. Francis of still life.”