Madame Manet, ca. 1876
Oil on canvas
23 7/8 × 20 in. (60.6 × 50.8 cm)
Norton Simon Art Foundation, Gift of Mr. Norton Simon, Pasadena, California
Suzanne Leenhoff was born in Delft in 1829. A talented pianist, she joined the Manet household in 1849 as the family’s music teacher and, in 1863, married Édouard Manet. Baudelaire wrote to a mutual friend that Manet’s new wife was reportedly “beautiful, very kind, and a very great artist.”
Manet painted his wife’s portrait at least thirteen times. The Norton Simon portrait seems to capture her unguarded likeness with unstudied immediacy. Manet left portions of bare canvas visible, and many of the key lines of the dress, in particular, have been laid down in single, masterful strokes. However, these effects were highly calculated. Manet’s paint layers comprise varied washes and glazes that required drying time between application, and he revised his subject significantly, painting out a large black hat that is now visible as a pentimento around her head.
Much to his sitters’ frustration, Manet was infamous for revising his portraits. Isabelle Lemonnier, one of the artist’s favorite models, recounted that “he was endlessly starting my portraits over again. He destroyed I know not how many studies in front of me.” Perhaps because he knew his methods often tried his models’ patience, Manet may have asked his wife to sit for this and a related portrait in the Metropolitan Museum of Art before settling on the pose and colors eventually used to depict Madame Jules Guillemet in his ambitious Salon submission In the Conservatory (1879).
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.”
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.