Roll Out the Canon

John Haber
in New York City

Edouard Manet and Diego Velázquez

The French Taste for Spanish Painting

Not every picture tells a story. Some know when to shut up and let others—the viewers, critics, and artists yet to come—tell stories of their own. In a museum, the discordant voices swell to a dizzying intensity. When an exhibition charts half a dozen rediscoveries of Spanish painting, it dares one to discern who speaks for art.

The Met's title already announces two distinct concerns, each more than enough for an exhibition to itself. "Manet/Velázquez" suggests a face-off between two august names. It asks one to sort out similarities and differences, ego and influence. The subtitle, "The French Taste for Spanish Painting," takes a broader view, of two big countries, fine arts, and shifting fashions. Edouard Manet's Tragic Actor: Rouvière as Hamlet (National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1865–1866)In between stands a colon, the promise of a just proportion between unequal terms. Think of it as the first sign of a struggle—the struggle for a canon of Western art.

Exhibitions at an exhibition

The show's entrance acts out the colon. An entry wall pairs two figures, one by Edouard Manet and one by Diego Velázquez. Similar in composition and scale, they both occupy a disturbing middle ground between portraiture and theater. Diego Velázquez gives a story-teller the dour, wrinkled features, heavy build, and tragic dignity of a tired laborer, while Manet gives his tragic actor the flair of a born story-teller. Velázquez's muted tones and shifting brushwork turn in Manet to a Parisian fashion of slashing black. The Spaniard's bare space, defined only by shadow, turns into a stage set—but one that refuses to leave its audience at a distance.

The first room then throws one into an entire history of the Spanish Baroque, at least as it first appeared in France. It could serve as a decent introduction to Spanish painting. One sees it all—from Francisco de Zurbarán and his ashen faces, rich colors, and dark reserve to Velázquez's eye for the particular, Jusepe de Ribera's images of worn skin and plain suffering, and the golden tones and heavy pieties of Bartolmé Esteban Murillo. It does a serious job of teaching French history, too, from the fate of aristocratic collections before the Revolution to Napoleon's looting of Europe.

And that is just for starters. By its end, the show covers well over two hundred works, many deservedly famous, three hundred and fifty years, and two or three continents. No wonder one can grow dizzy.

It turns to Romanticism and revolution, both in France and in Spain, to the point that one no longer knows which country is taking the lead. The first two rooms see Napoleon's march as a chance for a world power to take over the joint, to repossess the art of an undiscovered country. Now one looks at Francisco de Goya for his recreation of international politics as personal acts of violence and dark imaginings. Next, the Met recreates the Spanish room at the Louvre, when it served as a school for French Realism and Impressionism. The exhibition then gives Manet ample space to himself, even when he took only the barest hints from Velázquez. Yet another mini-exhibition looks for Spanish themes in French painting easily, if not best forgotten.

Just when I felt certain that I had reached the end, I found myself in a room of yet another thirty paintings, big statements by John Singer Sargent, William Merritt Chase, James McNeill Whistler, Thomas Eakins, and others in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. I was now seeing Spanish painting in a hall of mirrors—directly, through American eyes, and through Manet's influence, past and present, all at once. Velázquez, whose Las Meninas places himself and Spain's royal family amid open doors (as in a reworking by Picasso in black and white), unseen canvases, and a clouded mirror, may have the last word after all. No wonder Sargent made himself a copy. He also adapted its cavernous interior to his best-known family portrait—like Las Meninas, also mostly of young girls.

The last room sounds like an afterthought, and indeed "Manet/Velázquez" could work, perhaps better, without it—or even as half a dozen exhibitions. Not so very long ago a small, well-focused show treated Veláquez portraits, while two more examined Sargent's flair and Manet's Dead Toreador. (The latter has a place of honor—and critical antecedents—here at the Met.) They gave one new understandings of two careers, the Spaniard's influence, and changing notions of realism and theater. However, that last room's multiple perspectives could stand for the whole point. What amounts to influence anyhow, and how did a canon of Western art come to exist in the first place?

Beyond the fringe

Spain had a way of standing beyond the fringe, even as its grip extended to all of Europe. While Michelangelo's generation fought it out in central Italy, Titian was marketing himself abroad, and Spain was extending its naval and commercial reach to the east. When Caravaggio or Artemisia Gentileschi ended their careers in the south of Italy, they took on more of Titian's thin paint and dark, delicate color. El Greco passed through Italy, too, on the way to Spain, bringing more of the Venetian influence with him, along with fine light and sober portraiture that were to blow Veláquez away. Spain's empire included the lowlands as well. Dutch painting has its defining moment in the nation's struggle for independence.

If Spain both defined the mainstream and stood outside it, French taste only added to the paradox. Nicolas Poussin and the Royal Academy looked first to Italy as a model, as in Poussin's Roman landscapes. It associated Raphael's drawing, structure, and color with technical perfect. It drew on the Italian Baroque for a kind of moral theater, with a rich cast of characters and overt gestures to the audience. It mostly forgot about Spain. However, the paradox of Spanish art, like a few more pressing conflicts, stood ready to explode.

When the explosion came, the powers-that-be got in their claim first, as usual. Spanish piety and royal portraiture suited the French aristocracy and the new emperor perfectly. Besides, Napoleon had good reason to march on Spain rather than Italy—the Alps.

Eventually, the French empire broke up, and so did the collections it had amassed. By then, however, they had inspired four generations of rebellion.

From Romanticism to Manet, the dark tones, flashy brushwork, colors outside the range of primaries, and shallow stage offered a new repertoire. In all these, they saw affinities to other cultures beyond the academy, from the Dutch to the far east. Manet quotes both Velázquez and Japanese prints for his portrait of Emile Zola, both literally and in the grid-like composition. He likened Spanish art to Frans Hals, the Dutch artist of choice for a period dressed in black, before the modernist discovery of Jan Vermeer's inner world. Sargent's family portrait places the girls in that eerie room, dressed in Hals's clean blacks and whites, and alongside shimmering Chinese vases.

Diego Velázquez's Aesop (Museo Nacional del Prado, c. 1638)Even more, the French found in Spanish art a new realism. In practice, that meant the chance to redefine both realism and theater—in terms of class, violence, and confrontation. As with Manet's tragic actor, the spectacle can no longer just play out in front of the audience. It implicates everyone. Like Spain itself, the fringe keeps exerting its grip.

Realism and performance

Realism is in the eye of the beholder. When the heroine for Caravaggio or Artemisia takes revenge, her cause is just, but the cost is terrifying. They feel the cost in blood, blood that helps to fill a vivid, three-dimensional scene. They feel it within, in the ghastly eyes of killer and victim. By their measure, Murillo's pure Virgins, Zurbarán's otherworldly saints, and Veláquez's displaced pageants amount to sentimental escapism.

However, another age did not look within and see terror. It looked everywhere and saw pathos and horror. The violence of conquest may have delighted Napoleonic France. From Goya on, however, it stood for a mix of human instinct and political authority. It displaced populations. It hit hardest at women and the poor. It carried on in public entertainment and crime alike, from bullfights to city nights. In this climate of spectacle and suffering, gender and class, the Spanish Baroque seemed to have got there first.

The terror in Caravaggio comes from imagining mythic figures as real people. The silly grins of Murillo's peasants come from imagining real and mythic people in the same scene. The artist never transforms one into the image of the other.

Much of the sentiment comes from seeing larger-than-life victims within a very human landscape. Ribera's Saint Sebastian suffers from those arrows, but the painting's sympathy lies just as much with the woman who care for him. Veláquez paints grinning beggars, pathetically in need of Bacchus and wine. Conversely, he paints a dwarf or child in the royal court with barely a trace of condescension.

For an artist ever on call to perform, all this sounds entirely familiar. In the darkest or most fashionable edges of nineteenth-century Paris, where women felt always on call, it had a familiar ring, too. Naturally the dwarf became the model for Manet's Zola. A copy after Goya's Majas, their dangerous allure and symmetry broken by two sinister men, become his Balcony, much as Goya's Third of May helped with his Execution of Maximilian. Manet put his best friends in the cast, including his prettiest pupil.

By the century's end, modern art was to turn not just on the viewer, but on its own showy exterior. In contrast, the Americans at the Met here, still fascinated by fancy displays and by their own talents, look increasingly nostalgic. For them, the luxuriant reds and blacks of Veláquez's pope and Goya's sinners suited the new world's wealth. (Like Manet, they had a fondness for Frans Hals in Holland as well.) In place of Manet's Hamlet costumed for the public theater, Sargent's Doctor Pozzi struts in his dressing gown for invited guests. The appropriation of a distant empire for the rich has come full circle.

Canon fire

At the Met the past just will not sit still. One can claim it for the present, but then the present will pass soon enough, too. At "Manet/Veláquez," painting's history no sooner comes into being then it takes another direction in the hands of the living. Debates about art's canon sound hardly worth straining to hear amid all the actual cannon fire.

To many, conservative and postmodern alike, the canon has a quaint ring of authority and authenticity. To one side, it can stand for quality and decency. To the other, it can stand for the exercise of raw power. Either way, it maintains standards by propping up the past. It gives the dead the aura of originality and genius, while forgetting that every understanding of the past is merely a misunderstanding. No doubt, but the Spanish and their heirs have a few surprises in store for everyone.

Authenticity? Quality? Much of the Spanish art known to Manet came with the wrong attribution, just as Goethe had forged a magnificent nineteenth-century drawing collection on some poor guesses, and yet it still made the right impact. The French mistook one respectable artist for another, the workshop for the master. Their favorite Veláquez portrait of Philip IV really shows a Spanish prince.

The originality of the avant-garde? In rejecting Manet and triggering an avant-garde, the official Salon accused him of slavishly copying the Old Masters. Then he responded to criticism by cutting up his canvases and redoing them. And yet those two actors by the show's entrance have distinct aims after all.

Power? No sooner did the empire lay claim to Spain then its art became available to the opposition. Influence hinged on accidents of geography, war, and more mundane mistakes. Yet it led to conscious and unconscious choices about gender, class, and art. If artistic discoveries of "primitive" come in tandem with real imperialism, they also shake up easy assumptions about the civilized. It stands as one awful addition to America's shame in allowing the destruction of Iraq's heritage: what Iraq lost will never shape a brighter future that no one, not even an army or an oil firm, can conceivably control.

Misunderstanding? That assumes that the shifts mask some final understanding still to come. Conversely, it forgets that better attributions and interpretations really can bring insight. At the Met, one sees more than enough terrible misunderstandings. By lumping so many issues together, as well as by separating the discovery of Spanish art from related influences, the Met no doubt tosses in a few of its own, too. Still, one gets to see the struggle for understanding along the way—and enough art histories for a lifetime.

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"Manet/Velázquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting" ran through June 8, 2003 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.


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