Manet's Snapshots

Manet's Snapshots

Evidence seems strong that Edouard Manet used photographic prints and lighting to make some of his best-known paintings, but, says a critic, for him "photography seems to have motivated, and even abetted, a kind of counter-photographic style.”

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The source: “The Lost Photographs of Edouard Manet” by Alexi Worth, in Art in America, Jan. ­2007.

Edouard Manet (1832–83), arguably the greatest painter of his era, left behind paintings with some odd elements: In his 1864 The Dead Christ and the Angels, for example, the dazzling light on Christ’s figure shines upward from near the painter’s feet, illuminating the legs and torso and leaving the Savior’s head and shoulders in near darkness. It’s hard to imagine a natural source of such illumination. Alexi Worth, a painter and writer based in Brooklyn, wonders whether Manet’s paintings may be based on ­photographs.

It’s commonplace for painters to make use of photographs today, but when Manet was working in the early 1860s, it was scandalous. Painters were being “outed” for relying on the crutch of the camera. Little wonder, then, that no photo­graphs have been found among Manet’s papers. None­theless, the new technology was sweeping Europe. One of Manet’s closest friends was Nadar (1820–1910), among the first photographers to experiment with artificial light. Bright light looks ordinary to the modern eye, but in the 19th century it was startling. The few artificial sources of bright light available, such as arc lamps, were highly volatile, erratic, and dangerous. The intense light certainly could not have been sustained while a painter laboriously worked from live ­models.

Manet illuminated The Dead Christ with the bright, flat light of the amateur photographer, ac­cording to art historian Beatrice Farwell. In another painting, his 1865 The Mocking of Christ, art historian Michael Fried points out, Manet used several telltale signs of “awkward realism” that quite likely came from photo­graphs. Christ’s feet are oversized and show signs of having worn modern shoes. A figure in the left foreground seems over­scale, like a soldier cutout, and the scene is uncharacteristically organized like the mise en place of a television ­chef—­each necessary item arranged just so on diagonal lines. But these clues to the use of photographs do not do justice to Manet’s incorporation of the med­ium into his paintings, Worth ­argues.

Two hallmarks of Manet’s work are the use of frontal lighting and the varying treatment of different figures and elements
in the foreground and ­back­ground—­some precise, some almost sloppily painted. His work looks stripped down, em­phasizing some figures and minimizing others, making photo­graphic and ­non-­photographic sources cohabit. He was “intent, not on acknowledging photography’s power, but on subsuming and subordinating it,” Worth writes. “For Manet alone, photog­raphy seems to have motivated, and even abetted, a kind of ­counter-­photographic style.”

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