A touch of France: Manet’s gazes

Manet’s gazes
by K. Harding Nahum, USA

Manet’s complex art can be understood from the point of view of a new developmental psychoanalysis that has derived its ideas from infancy studies as well as the work of Winnicott, Sander, Stern, and the Boston Change Process Study Group. These researchers have found in the earliest intersubjective exchanges with the mother the model for both the formation of the self and the model for later relationships and cognitive life, therefore overturning Freudian drive theory. Manet’s artistic style— comprised of figures with glacial stares, brilliant surfaces of color, the contraction of space—and his constructed persona as a flâneur are both expressions of how he hid and nurtured what seems to be a false self, formed in response to the misattunements of his early life. His figures’ stares dominated, assessed, and dismissed the nineteenth-century spectator or critic who, anxious and confused, was also pulled into a web of misattunement. Several of Manet’s late paintings (Argenteuil, Chez le Père Lathuille, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère) follow the tradition of paintings containing another painting within concerned with some moral exemplar, or high-minded art. Manet’s painting within represented a muse who might respond to the artist attentively. In the Bar she is split between two images of the same woman, one who is attuned to the patron, and one who sends him, and us, packing.

Medicographia. 2011;33:210-218 (see French abstract on page 218)

Misattunements of the gaze: A Bar at the Folies-Bergère.
1882-3, oil on canvas, 96×130 cm.
The Courtauld Gallery, London, UK.

© Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London, UK/The Bridgeman Art Library.

We see Manet’s ambiguous paintings as complex images of his regard for the old masters—Velázquez foremost among them—as images of the social flux of a new Baudelairean society, and as a pungent record of the nature of his most intimate early experiences.

Velázquez’s paintings formed a model for figural isolation, brilliant flat planes, contraction of space, glacial stares and deadpan expressions—formal elements toward which Manet was predisposed as an artist. The Spanish master’s realist presentation of kings and dwarfs anticipated how Manet wished to present contemporary society as viewed by the flâneur. Furthermore, Velázquez’s honored role within the Spanish court was one thatManet aspired to within the French Salon. If these aims were contradictory, tant pis!

Manet’s qualities of artistic style worked toward a forceful representation of the nature of his inner life, his self.

A developmental psychoanalytic approach to Manet’s style

There have beenmany psychological interpretations ofManet’s work essentially based on Freudian drive theory, but none based upon developmental psychoanalysis which can be used to relate the art’s “expressive content to [Manet’s] highly elusive personality, [to identify] the meaning of his quotations, [and to grasp] the unity of his oeuvre.”1 Against a background of Velázquez’s importance to Manet, I will consider the visual elements he uses and the aesthetic decisions he makes in light of emerging formulations from infancy research and developmental psychoanalysis.2

Self-Portrait With a Palette, 1878-9, oil on canvas, 83×67 cm. Private Collection.

© Christie’s Images/Bridgeman Giraudon.

This new psychoanalysis derives its theory from direct, observational studies of infants. Unlike classical theory, developmental psychoanalysis neither constructs a childhood based upon patients’ necessarily distorted memories nor is it based upon a model that assumes pathology. Incipient problems within “stages” of development “[are] illusory and emerge[..] from theoretical, methodological, or clinical needs and biases in conjunction with cultural pressures. It is in the eyes of the beholder, not in the infant’s experience.”3

Research demonstrates that from the beginning humans are social animals. They are innately pulled into intersubjective exchanges with the care-giving environment to form a living system. Repetitions of sleep, feeding, and intimate exchanges become expected, complex and more coherent—making possible regulation of the self and organization within the system. The infant as an organism moves from the biological to the behavioral, and then to a psychological being very quickly. The ideal goal is the achievement of shared states by the dyad, but that is dependent upon the caregiver’s attunement to the infant’s state and its ongoing sequencing. Virtually from the beginning, states have affective dimensions and shape how well state regulation occurs between the pair. This in turn shapes interaction, behavior, and the formation of personality4 because, although never exactly the same, interactions are repeated endlessly. From repeated intersubjective exchanges the infant culls what is invariant.5 He makes for himself a prototype of interactive experience whereby his developing self is, or is not recognized, whereby his idiosyncratic style of “being-with” and “being-distinct from” is formed.6

Las Meninas or The Family of Philip IV. By Diego Velázquez, 1656, oil on canvas,
316×276 cm. Prado, Madrid, Spain.

© Giraudon/The Bridgeman Art Library.

The gaze as originary

Gazing, the first of the senses to become refined and controlled by the baby, is a potent means of communication with the mother. At birth the baby’s focal length is set at about eight inches, just the right distance to see hismother, and to see her gazing at himas he feeds. Theymight remain locked in mutual gaze for over thirty seconds or more, three times longer than adults gaze at one another without speech unless they are going to fight or make love.7 Gazing as his mother gazes at him is also a means of self-regulation. The baby regulates his state and communication itself by averting his gaze and reestablishing eye contact as he sees fit. An impingingmother who pursues her child with her gaze might be received by the baby turning his head away, falling asleep, or, depending on the intensity of the pursuit, her gaze might be returned by a blank stare, the ultimate guerilla tactic to fend off the impinging interaction. While the blank stare may appear to be a compliance, it actually resists the mother’s intrusion and asserts the infant’s sense of himself, his own will.

If the baby’s gaze is repeatedly greeted with the inert face of a depressed mother, the blossoming of his self is thwarted; he must fall back upon his own inadequate means of recovery and restitution. The infant may provide what he infers his mother wants—an array of behaviors that amount to his own false self.8 A false self might succeed in getting from his mother what he needs. Although “children of depressed mothers tend to be curious and intellectually far-ranging, they know they can’t really turn their mother on; they have an emptiness that cannot be filled.”5

Madame Auguste Manet. 1869-70, oil on canvas, 97.8×80 cm.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, Mass, USA.

© Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, Mass, USA/The Bridgeman Art

The Street Singer. 1862, oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts,
Boston, Mass, USA.

© Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Mass, USA/Bequest of Sarah Choate Sears in
memory of her husband, Joshua Montgomery Sears/The Bridgeman Art Library.

Manet’s character and his art were composed of dazzling surfaces; his art of surfaces represents a parallel to Manet’s constructed persona. Artistic style encodes and expresses character; behind both is Manet’s actual self.

We know nothing of the unique features of Manet’s early life within a broad picture of an expectable environment for children of the grand bourgeois. His father was a magistrate and civil judge; his mother a social butterfly with a pleasant voice. She sang at the salons she frequented. By all accounts they were close: she adored her son; he “worshipped” her. The real relationship is impossible to detect from these inscrutable terms. Manet, a malleable child, was described as having a “difficult character” when he continued to do poorly in school.

Artists and biographers have described Manet as a witty and elegantly dressed flâneur concerned with style and form in all things, and distinctly unconcerned with contemporary social ills. He was neither self-aware nor given to intimate revelation. When he announced his marriage to Suzanne Leenhoff to his closest friends, Baudelaire and Antonin Proust, they were shocked, never having known of any prior relationship with this woman who came to the marriage with an eleven-year-old son.9

Manet’s silence regarding Suzanne reveals the importance of remaining unknown to his friends; it is an act that exposes the nature of his intersubjective exchanges, and actions speak louder than words. To paraphrase Freud, actions are another “royal road” to the unconscious as dreams are.5

Comparing self-portraits

Manet’s late Self-Portrait with a Palette (Private Collection, 1879) is one of two painted in that year, the only true self-portraits he ever made. Based on Velázquez’s in Las Meninas, it signified that he had attained a stature like that of the court painter’s own in Madrid, a stature he wanted immediately recognized since upon its completion he summoned his friends to view it.10 At the time Manet felt good about his own energetic promotion of his work and his plans for decorations for the Hotel de Ville, a program that could be compared to Velázquez’s decorative schemes for Philip IV. The painting was regarded ambivalently by both his heirs and the public, however, since it was withheld from view and sold with difficulty.11

Manet wears a voluminous cream-yellow jacket that billows from narrow shoulders, a black cravat and stickpin, and a black bowler hat. A drawing of 1869 by Frédéric Bazille shows that this was his habitual attire when painting and that the occasion of making his self-portrait did not dictate the attire. Perhaps dressing as a flâneur helped him create a comfortable state of mind by which he knew himself best.

The artists are shown in both self-portraits with brushes and palettes poised, both in the process of scrutinizing themselves as they approach the canvas. The paintings appear to have been executed very rapidly. Although his stylistic development may have followed that of the master, here using something like Velázquez’s late borrone technique, Manet’s brushwork never quite brings the form to resolution. The alla prima brushwork of the Spanish master creates space within a continuum, and, from a certain viewing distance, places coherent, volumetric forms within that space.

We are aware of hasty brushstrokes describing surfaces, especially that of the jacket which becomes a large, gold presence. How rapidly could he have laid in those brushstrokes if sitters to Manet describe his laborious process of scraping out and starting over in long painting sessions?

Velázquez draws out his paint to attenuate the sensitive fingers and merge them with the brush; immersed in the process of art, he turns back to the canvas, his body rotating in space. Before our eyes Velázquez enacts a creative process that results in the image we see. Manet’s body is tied parallel to the picture plane where it remains fastened and static. His flat figure suggests that Manet gets stuck in process. Perhaps Manet reasoned that the chaos of brushstrokes that form his right hand was the equivalence of motion, process; but the hand pulls apart and lacks even the integrity of the brush it holds.

Portrait of Emile Zola. 1868, oil on canvas, 146.5×115 cm. Musée d’Orsay,
Paris, France.

© Giraudon/The Bridgeman Art Library.

Manet felt he had no imagination and required a specific object from which to paint. His dependence on a model implies that he could get stuck within the dynamic process of picturing, essentially an interactive process like the flow of a relationship.

Velázquez’s gaze seems the agent of a discerning mind that is about to reach a conception that he will execute with his already moving hand; Manet’s gaze is vacant yet questioning. His face, beard, tie, and jacket are nearly equivalent surfaces, and the dark triangle at the bottom of the canvas attracts our eye: it sets off four paintbrushes. The brush the artist holds has substance— the bristles are loaded with red pigment, the metal band binds the bristles, the handle lit along the upper edge gives it broad modeling. The brushes below have bristles separated from their handles, their supports. They overlap the jacket’s edge.

All four brushes are poised over the unbuttoned jacket, opened to reveal nothing, no body behind. The black triangle is as black as the background behind Manet’s head; it is background. There is no vest, no dress shirt in this area to which our eye is drawn as to a void that is framed by a yellow coat. Manet’s artistic strategy now seems internally logical and psychologically consistent. The disintegrating hand that paints and creates an art of surfaces— so like his flâneur self—falls apart. The dislocation of the bristles from their supports parallels the distance between the unknown self and its constructed overlay of posturing. Manet’s relentlessly superficial self-portrait reveals the artist’s experience of himself as a hollow man with a false self. Manet has transformed the charm of surfaces that hid and disguised his inner life—into his art.

Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe [The Luncheon on the Grass]. 1863, oil on canvas, 208×264 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.

© Musée d’Orsay (dist. RMN)/Patrice Schmidt.

The nature of the gaze

The artistic process of seeing, engaging, remembering, and creating forms on canvas is an act to which is brought the surrounding culture, a life history, even the tension of the artist’s hand. Manet fused art historical fragments into seemingly inept, shallow compositions of color planes. These he marked at the canvas’s surface—making him a modern master.12 Critics responded that his paintings seemed unfinished, had ambiguous forms and insulting content. Yet Manet was his art and form was the message.

The hauteur of Velázquez’s court figures, particularly their gazes, conveyed an acknowledgement of the scrutiny of the viewer who, like Manet’s viewer, was being dominated, assessed, found wanting, and dismissed. Portraits bound for 17th-century royal courts were meant to display power and prestige, but it was odd indeed that Olympia regarded the male viewer in this manner, or that a street singer did. Manet must have considered such figures powerful.

For that matter, the dynamic of the gaze as an aspect of the master’s style, and Manet’s emulation of it, recapitulates Manet’s early interactions that later structured his engagement with others. His choice to engage with Velázquez held amemory trace of his early processes.

A series of figure paintings demonstrates the nature of Manet’s intersubjective relations. Along with the qualities of the gaze, they show a flattening of the figure into bold silhouettes of clear color that caught the eye of the salon goer from among dark or “skied” paintings—but that also expressed a freighted way of “being-with” and “being-distinct from” a starkly imaged other who recalled a prototype. She intrudes and dominates, if she does not overwhelm.

Argenteuil. 1874, oil on canvas. Musée des Beaux Arts, Tournai, Belgium.

© Bridgeman Giraudon.

It seems natural to begin with Manet’s mother whose portrait (Madame Auguste Manet, 1863), shows her in mourning. Her set mouth and distant, vacant gaze must reveal the dimensions of her character since it mirrors those qualities of her features in Manet’s double portrait of his parents (1859- 60). Manet is seeing and rendering his mother’s gaze as he knows it. The portrait here captures the ancient misattunements of gazing, later experienced empathically by the spectator.

Distancing gazes are by subtle turns cold, blank, dismissive, challenging, aggressive, rejecting, and sometimes paradoxical to the overbearing form—the gaze rejects while the form impinges, as can be seen in Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe [The Luncheon on the Grass], 1863.

This is also true of The Street Singer, 1862. The figure is shown as imposing, yet utterly still as she emerges from a café, its doors still moving. Wearingaman’s faluche and a fashionabledress beyond the means of an entertainer of her milieu, she holds a guitar, hoists her skirt and cradles cherries wrapped in paper, a task impossible to execute in one gesture. Our eye is led straight to the cherries by the guitar and the black trim of the dress. These form a diagonal that seems to arrest the figure as well. Manet makes a witty juxtaposition of eyes and cherries, for la guigne, sweet cherry, is visually transformed here to suggest guigner, meaning peer, peep, or ogle. Originally Manet had asked an actual singer to pose for him, but she twice refused him, laughing in his face. The rebuff must have recalled earlier ones, in part embodied here in the placard-like figure that cannot be grasped. The figure does not recognize us; her gaze is unfocused and blank. Resisting our searching gaze it sends us stumbling backward out of the picture into a world where real meaning is to be found, and where, as Manet did, we must muster our own resources.

Paul Mantz’s response of 1863 was necessarily hostile because, like other critics, he felt drawn into Manet’s web of misattunement:

Because of an abnormality we find deeply disturbing, the eyebrows lose their horizontal position and slide vertically down the nose like two commas of shadow; there is nothing there except the crude conflict of the chalk whites with the black tones. The effect is pallid, hard, sinister.13

Manet took another critical beating at the 1865 Salon where Jesus Mocked by the Soldiers and Olympia were hung, two paintings characterized by flat, unmodulated surfaces and blank stares. Since his seeking of comfort from Baudelaire was met with scorn, he traveled to Spain to consult with Velázquez.

Returning from Madrid, Manet felt Velázquez’s paintings represented an acknowledgement of his own work; he felt recognized. Now he responded more to the master’s pictures within pictures.

Zachary Astruc’s (1866) blankly staring figure sits in a dark foreground next to a mirrored surface that is the highly lit picture within, and one that forms a complex system of contrasts. The very idea of contrasts suggests a dyad and a relationship within it. Astruc, a critic and painter, sits in darkness, but his hands are highly lit, as are the curtains, the still life objects and the female figure reflected in the mirror to the right. Has Astruc made these forms? The static foreground still life is a contrast to the mirrored one that seems as if it is growing, and the compressed picture space is juxtaposed to the deep sweep of space implied in the mirror that includes the woman and ourselves.

The painting contained within Velázquez’s painting held an inner meaning, an elevated reality of moral exemplar, myth and art; now Manet is making here and in the Portrait of Emile Zola (1868), representations of the other in the intersubjective exchange that are enframed within the picture as art. These portraits involved Manet’s meanings. The mirrored image, suggesting the venerable tradition of art as a mirror to life, contains a figure of a woman—not Astruc’s brunette wife—but a sort of muse who has turned her back, and to whom “Astruc” directs his ambiguously blank and perhaps longing gaze. Unconsciously Manet kept pushing toward an understanding of his art and himself. His late and more subtle paintings within paintings—Argenteuil (1874), Chez le Père Lathuille (1879) and A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1881-82)—depict men who gaze intensely at women—muses—who are tied to the painting within the painting, a massively important one because it almost is the entire painting.

A muse “…can contribute to the coherence of the self [but] alternatively…the self may be surrendered to an idealized muse.”14 Manet yearns for the coherence the idealized muse might offer him.

Henri Duplay, a painter of military subjects15 posed for the figure of the flâneur reflected at the right of the mirror in the Bar at the Folies-Bergère. He has drawn so close to Suzon, the barmaid, that his hat brim seems to project over her head and their noses nearly touch. The figure of Suzon who faces us is the isolated, warily gazing and stiff Infanta Margarita of Las Meninas made monumental. Manet has expanded, almost to the limits of the frame, the mirror containing the image of Margarita’s parents, the king and queen who have suddenly appeared in the space before Velázquez’s painting. Manet has replaced their image with a reflection of “tout Paris,” a whole, mixed society. Suzon’s figure, as it is reflected on the right, and as she faces us, is allied with the mirror through the repetitions of blacks and whites and the cold chalky grey-blue of her skirt, all scumbled to indicate the shimmering surface of the mirror. It is a broad, impressionist painting within the painting. Suzon’s reflected figure responds to Duplay’s gaze to confirm her role as muse. As Manet’s and our own surrogate, Duplay peers pleadingly into her face, his raised hand gripping a cane. As Suzon’s reflected figure bends attentively to the flâneur, she fulfills the desired attunement between artist and muse, infant and mother.

It is quite another matter when we see Suzon directly before us. This Suzon, her blankly aversive gaze shifted by millimeters to the left, is depressed, hardly a muse. She draws herself up and pushes toward us the barrier of the marble bar top on which are arrayed the delectable objects that are available to us.These roses, oranges, and gleaming bottles—equivalents to the succulent still lifes in Luncheon on the Grass and The Street Singer—are as sops to distract us from engaging with her and truly penetrating the painting’s meaning. Suzon does not acknowledge our gaze but casts us back like fish into the oceanic surge of life we see in the mirror. We’re on our own.

Chez le Père Lathuille. 1879, oil on canvas, 92×112 cm. Musée des Beaux-Arts,
Tournai, Belgium.

© Giraudon/Bridgeman Giraudon.

Gazing at Manet

The peculiar blank gazes seen in both Manet’s figures and in his own self-portrait probably capture the artist’s own state of mind formed in the intimate exchanges with his caregivers. Such gazes have been used by the infant to ward off emotional intrusion while maintaining a sense of himself, his will, his agency. Yet Manet’s gazes, his essential flâneur stance and his artistic style of color planes poised just at the surface seem to express what amounts to a false self—an array of behaviors to attract the attention of a depressed mother who was both intrusive and absent. Manet’s behavior was designed to avoid being known himself. _

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