Édouard Manet became notorious in the 1860s when his paintings were submitted to Paris’s annual Salon, an officially sanctioned, popular, juried exhibition designed to showcase the latest, most ambitious painting in France.
Some of his paintings were accepted, only to be laughed at and savaged. Many more were rejected.
The problem, put simply, was that Manet’s idea of “ambitious” differed from most of his peers’. He was interested, for starters, in contemporary subject matter, not in the anachronistic histories and mythologies that dominated the official Salon.
When Manet’s peers did tackle contemporary subjects, they tended to do so in a sentimental, moralizing vein that was anathema to him.
Manet’s subjects — a guitar player, a prostitute, a picnic with a naked woman and two clothed men, various socially marginalized types, Spanish dancers and musicians, and so on — were presented frontally, unapologetically, and with a dismaying absence of judgment or explanation. He indulged personal impulses and whims — including a taste for dressing up his subjects in unlikely outfits — that many found bizarre.
Worst of all, he painted in a sketchy manner that struck many as unconscionably crude.
All this is familiar territory for anyone interested in the beginnings of modern art, of which Manet is often called “the father” (although when it came to paternity he could be cagey, as we shall see).
What is less well known is that in this crucial period, the 1860s, Manet played a leading role in an etching revival just then getting underway in France.
A fervent admirer of the great illustrators of his day and a lover of prints by the likes of Goya and Rembrandt, Manet belonged to a group of artists who hoped to give etching new life.
“Manet in Black,” at the Museum of Fine Arts, draws welcome attention to this side of Manet’s oeuvre. It includes not only etchings but lithographs and drawings. And it features small, printed versions of some of Manet’s most famous paintings: “Olympia,” “The Absinthe Drinker,” “Boy With a Sword,” and “The Execution of Maximilian.”
The show, which was organized by Helen Burnham, also includes Manet’s six lithographs illustrating Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and a number of contextualizing works by other artists, among them Goya, Rembrandt, Delacroix, Daumier, and Degas.
The Degas etching that opens the show is a portrait of Manet seated in a chair. (Anyone interested, by the way, in comparing these two friends, rivals, and giants of 19th-century art should try to see the MFA show in tandem with “Edgar Degas: The Private Impressionist,” a selection of more than 100 drawings, pastels, and prints, from the collection of Robert Flynn Johnson at the Portland Museum of Art.)
Degas’s depiction, which shows Manet seated sideways on a chair, his hands clasped patiently in his lap, is a reminder of his friend’s character: urbane and open-minded, casually at ease yet ferociously independent; in short, powerfully seductive. (“How could you expect anyone to stay on bad terms with Manet?” Degas once asked the dealer Ambroise Vollard, by way of explaining the resumption of their friendship after a serious rift.)
In 1862, just as Manet’s name and the word “scandal” were being knitted together forever, he and a group of fellow artists became founding members of a group called the Société des Aquafortistes. The group was formed by Alfred Cadart and Felix Chevalier to produce — and promote as fine art — limited edition etchings.
What was new about this? Just that, for a long time, etching had existed in a relationship of slavish dependence upon painting. Etchings, which existed in multiples, were cheaper and easier to distribute, so they were used primarily to reproduce paintings in order to make them better known.
Manet used it for those purposes, too. Very few of his etchings and lithographs do not relate in some way to his paintings (or to other people’s: There are two prints here based on paintings thought at the time to be by Manet’s great hero, Diego Velázquez). And in many cases, the etchings are the only record we have of the original state of paintings that Manet later reworked or cut up into separate pieces.
But he also put considerable energy into exploring the medium’s unique expressive potential. Nonchalantly letting go of the expectation that an etching should be a faithful copy of a painting, he experimented with styles of hatching, contrasts in tone, relations between figure and ground, and, inevitably, mood.
There are three works here, for instance, that riff on Manet’s intimate painted portraits of the artist Berthe Morisot. They were made in the early 1870s, just before Morisot married Manet’s brother. The etching (the other two are crayon lithographs) is surpassingly strange: Morisot’s delicate but darkly beautiful features have been given a lurid twist.
The effect is uncanny, and slightly gruesome, prompting uncomfortable thoughts about the very nature of identity. It’s like looking at one of Cindy Sherman’s sideways-sloshing self-portraits.
Manet’s shift away from traditional and toward contemporary subjects was chaperoned into being by his longstanding infatuation with Spanish painting. The realism of 17th-century Spanish painters like Velázquez and Bartolomé Murillo — particularly their penchant for depicting picturesque character types, street urchins, and members of the laboring lower classes — helped Manet see merit in addressing Paris’s own underclass.
But for several years, he seemed to be doing it through the prism of those Spanish painters. He made a painting and several etchings of a boy with his dog, for instance, that were based directly on a painting by Murillo of the same subject.
Nonetheless, Manet didn’t stay beholden to anyone or anything for terribly long. The etching on display here, called “The Boy With a Dog,” breaks away from the Murillo composition and presents something much more spontaneous and affecting.
It shows a small boy with a cap holding back quite a big dog. The handling — of not only the dog’s fur but the boy’s face and ear — is brisk and free, and the whole composition is very lively.
Manet seems to have based it on a sketch he made two or three years earlier of his young studio assistant, Alexandre. One day in 1859, Manet returned to his studio to find Alexandre had hanged himself.
Manet was left with the task of cutting down the boy’s body and informing his parents. His friend, Charles Baudelaire, wrote a haunting prose-poem about it called “La Corde” (“The Rope”). And clearly, Alexandre was still in Manet’s own mind several years later when he made “The Boy With a Dog.”
His own son, Leon, meanwhile, featured in paintings and multiple etchings of, among other subjects, a boy with a sword and a boy blowing soap bubbles. Etchings of both are included here.
Curiously, some people, including the esteemed Manet scholar Nancy Locke, believe Leon was not in fact Manet’s son but the offspring of Manet’s father, a prominent judge, and that Manet later married Suzanne Leenhoff out of filial piety: It was a way to cover up any potential scandal.
Either way, the boy’s mother was certainly Leenhoff, who had entered the Manet household as a piano teacher. But even after Manet eventually married her, Leon was always introduced in public as her younger brother. Incredibly, he seems to have been allowed to believe this fiction himself until he turned 18.
It’s precisely the uncertainty that clouds not only Leon’s paternity but his very identity that makes Manet’s many depictions of him so charged with mystery. And it feels oddly typical of Manet that Leon remains expressionless in almost every case.
There are so many aspects to this show that I haven’t touched on, including Manet’s close relationship with Baudelaire, their shared interest in Edgar Allan Poe, the prints Manet made in response to the catastrophic Civil War of 1871, and his collaborations with writers on book illustrations.
“Manet in Black” may be a small show, squeezed awkwardly into one of the MFA’s (too many) corridor galleries. But I’ve seen it three times already and intend to see it again. The fact is, there’s just no artist more interesting than Manet.Sebastian Smee can be reached at email@example.com.