The Ragpicker

oil painting of older man standing with hat and walking stick

The Ragpicker, ca. 1865–71, possibly reworked 1876–77
Oil on canvas
76 3/4 × 51 1/2 in. (194.9 × 130.8 cm)
The Norton Simon Foundation, Pasadena, California

 

The Ragpicker is the culmination of a series that Manet retrospectively dubbed his “4 Philosophers” when the art dealing firm of Durand-Ruel purchased them in 1872. In these innovative paintings, Manet overlaid two themes: the seventeenth-century Spanish tradition of “beggar-philosophers” and the contemporary Parisian social type displaced by aggressive urban planning.

After returning from Spain in 1865, Manet wrote to Baudelaire that he believed Diego Velázquez to be “the greatest painter there has ever been.” Velázquez’s single-figure “beggar-philosophers” Menippus (ca. 1638) and Aesop (ca. 1638), which Manet saw in the Museo del Prado, were touchstones for his decision to employ such a grand format for an unlikely subject and the smoothly painted volumes seen in the hat, pants, and foreground still life.

Ragpickers, who were licensed to gather and recycle discarded household goods by selling them to the lower classes, captured the popular imagination in Manet’s day. With the destruction of medieval streets in favor of grand boulevards and open spaces carried out under Georges-Eugène Haussmann, their lives and customs were quickly romanticized, as in Baudelaire’s poem “The Ragpicker’s Wine” (1857): “At the heart of the muddy labyrinth outside the city center, / Where humanity crawls in seething ferment / One sees a ragpicker coming, his head shaking, / Stumbling, bumping into walls like a poet.”

The Ragpicker exited Manet’s studio in 1872, but he probably reworked it between 1876 and 1877, while he was staying with its owner, Ernest Hoschedé. The heavy cross-hatching built up with a stiff brush on the figure’s hands and face contrasts with the rest of the paint surface but is typical of the agitated technique that Manet briefly explored in the mid-1870s.