Le Vieux Musicien (1862)

Manet, Édouard (1832-1883)

Le Vieux Musicien (The Old Musician)
Oil on canvas, 187.4 x 248.2 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington

In a review of the 1846 Salon, poet and critic Charles Baudelaire urged artists to depict “the heroism of modern life.” Manet embodied Baudelaire‘s ideal painter of contemporary Paris. Emperor Napoleon III ordered the renovation of Paris under the direction of Baron Haussmann, and early in the 1860s the slum where Manet located his studio was being razed to accommodate the planned broad, tree–lined boulevards that still characterize the city. In this painting, Manet represented a strolling musician flanked by a gypsy girl and infant, an acrobat, an urchin, a drunkard, and a ragpicker—individuals the artist might have observed near his studio. The seemingly casual gathering is composed of the urban poor, possibly dispossessed by Haussmann’s projects. Neither anecdotal nor sentimental, Manet’s portrayal carries the careful neutrality of an unbiased onlooker, and this distinctly modern ambiguity and detachment are characteristic of all Manet‘s work. By placing pigments side by side rather than blending tones, Manet could preserve the immediacy and directness of preliminary oil studies in his finished works. Effects produced by this technique were sharper and crisper than those obtained using academic methods. When they first encountered Manet‘s work early in the 1860s, Monet and Renoir admired his manner of painting and emulated it as they forged the style known as impressionism. Against a hilly landscape and on a patch of dirt, five people wearing tattered clothing gather around a bearded man who holds a violin in his lap in this horizontal painting. Most of them have pale skin. Starting from the left is a barefoot young woman holding a blond baby to her chest. She faces our right, and her chestnut-brown hair hides her profile. She wears a black shirt over a calf-length skirt streaked with slate and aquamarine blue. To the right two young boys face us. The boy on the left of that pair wears a loose white shirt tucked into tan-colored pants and an upturned wide-brimmed hat. The boy next to him has short brown hair and is dressed in a black and brown vest and pants over a bone-white shirt. His right arm, to our left, is slung across the shoulders of the blond boy and he looks off to our right with dark, unfocused eyes. The man who holds the violin is to our right of center. He sits on a stone with his body facing our left, but he turns to look at us with dark eyes under heavy brows. He has tan skin, dark gray, curly hair, and a trimmed silvery gray beard. A wrinkle under one eye suggests he may smile slightly at us. He wears a loose brown cloak with a ragged bottom hem, teal-blue stockings, and black shoes. He holds a violin on his lap like a guitar. One hand fingers a chord on the neck of the violin, which comes toward us, and the other hand holds the bow and plucks a string. A sand-colored bag with a strap lies at his feet. Two men stand to our right of the musician. One wears a tall black top hat, a brown cloak, gray pants, and black shoes. His face is loosely and indistinctly painted but he has a beard. Finally, the sixth person is a man who stands along the right side of the painting and is cut off by that edge. He wears a turban, a black polka-dotted scarf, and a long black cloak or coat. One hand clutches the scarf and the other rests on a wooden cane by his side. His chin and long, light-colored beard tuck back against the scarf, and he looks off to our left with dark eyes. There are loosely painted olive and forest-green leaves in the upper left corner. The landscape beyond is painted with indistinct areas of muted green, blue, and brown. Bits of azure-blue sky peek through puffy white and gray clouds overhead. The artist signed and dated the lower right, “ed. Manet 1862.” (NGA)