Manet/Velázquez : Brilliant Exhibit Crossing Pyrénées

It has long been recognized that 17th-century Spanish painting exerted a powerful, transforming influence on 19th-century French painting, and thus on the mainstream evolution of modern European art. Writing in the first decade of the 20th century, the great German critic Julius Meier-Graefe gave us a trenchant account of this crucial connection in the chapter devoted to “Manet and His Circle” in his magisterial history, The Development of Modern Art. “The supercession of the artistic element of Spain by her stronger sister on the other side of the Pyrénées,” wrote Meier-Graefe, “began as soon as French art became natural and independent, no longer ‘Eighteenth Century’ and no longer ‘Empire.’ Delacroix foreshadows it …. Most of the early Impressionists are half Spanish,” and so on. And, as Meier-Graefe also clearly understood, Édouard Manet (1832-1883) was the key figure.

Exactly why it has taken so long for a major exhibition to be devoted to a subject that is, after all, one of the central turning points in the early history of modernism is something we can only speculate about. But now that we’ve been given such an exhibition in Manet/Velázquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, we can be grateful for the delay. It’s unlikely that any prior administration at the Met-or anywhere else, for that matter-would have been equal to the challenge of such a daunting task. Visiting and revisiting this extraordinary show, one feels at times as if the contents of the Prado in Madrid and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris-not to mention the Louvre-had landed on our doorstep. I exaggerate, of course, but in the presence of so many masterworks, it’s all but impossible to resist the atmosphere of excitement and expectation that this show arouses.

Manet/Velázquez is at once a great exhibition of Spanish painting, a great exhibition of French painting-and, in its closing section, even a surprisingly interesting exhibition of American painting. (In this respect, too, Meier-Graefe’s chapter on “Manet and His Circle” anticipated the organizers of Manet/Velázquez with, among other things, a discussion of Whistler and an illustration of Sargent’s once-controversial portrait, Madame X (1884), which is included in the current show.) Manet/Velázquez is something more as well: a brilliant account of the ways in which the conventions of 17th-century Spanish painting, which were virtually unknown in France in the 18th century, came to be transformed into a tradition of French realism that, in the 19th century, established the very notion of modernity in painting that we still live by today. This is how Gary Tinterow, the principal curator of Manet/Velázquez , describes the program of this extraordinary project in “Raphael Replaced: The Triumph of Spanish Painting in French,” his introductory essay for the show’s encyclopedic catalog: “It will map a fascinating shift in the paradigm of painting, from Idealism to Realism, from Italy to Spain, from Renaissance to Baroque, from carefully finished, porcelain-likesurfaces lechées to an excessive emphasis on brushy technique ( l’outrance de la cuisine )-the foundation of the Impressionists’ aesthetic of the sketch. Above all, it will demonstrate that it was direct contact with Spanish art-sometimes of great quality, sometimes mediocre, and sometimes not even Spanish-that fired the imagination of French artists and contributed to the triumph of Realism in the 1860′s.”

“Direct contact,” indeed. In painting after painting-and not only those of Manet, but in the work of Delacroix, Courbet, Degas and Mary Cassatt, among others-you can follow this course of headlong aesthetic conversion to the Spanish school. And in their writings, too, the French painters were eloquent in their grateful appreciation of the Spanish masters. Writing in his journal in 1824 about the copy he’d made of a portrait of Charles II that was then thought to be the work of Velázquez, Delacroix noted: “This is what I have so long sought, this firm, yet yielding impasto … if I were to take up my palette this moment, which I’m dying to do, that fine Velázquez would obsess me. I’d like to spread some nice oily, thick paint across a brown or red canvas.” The first painting by Velázquez that we encounter in the current exhibition- The Jester Pablo de Valladolid (circa 1632-1635), from the Prado-is one that greatly excited Manet when he saw it on his first visit to Madrid in 1865. Writing to his friend Henri Fantin Latour, Manet joyously acclaimed Velázquez as the “painter of painters,” and singled out this august portrait of the black-robed jester as “possibly the most extraordinary piece of painting that has ever been done … the background disappears, there’s nothing but air surrounding the fellow, who is all in black.”

This boldly painted figure “all in black” made a profound impression on Manet, for upon his return to Paris, he promptly adopted black-or rather, a whole palette or repertory of blacks-as one of the central painterly resources of his art. The first painting by Manet that we see in the exhibition- The Tragic Actor (Rouviére as Hamlet) (1865-1866), which hangs next to The Jester Pablo de Valladolid -is already an hommage to Velázquez and a brilliant departure into a new pictorial terrain; and in the dazzling series of full-figure paintings and portraits from the 1860′s and 1870′s, Manet emerges as a master comparable in achievement to the masters he emulated.

Can the same thing be said about the American painters represented in Manet/Velázquez ? Not really. Mary Cassatt and Thomas Eakins acquit themselves with honor in this company, but Whistler tends to be vaporized and Sargent-well, Sargent remains the prodigiously ambitious, prodigiously gifted talent of the secondary rank he has long been thought to be. It was an interesting idea to attach this American epilogue to Manet/Velázquez , but when we depart the galleries devoted to the American painters, we are in no doubt why this exhibition is properly focused on Manet as the central figure in the tradition deriving from the 17th-century Spanish masters.

Manet/Velázquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting remains on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through June 8.