Interpreting Manet


Edouard Manet as well as Gustave Courbet, who was the subject of a recent post, are subject to conflicting interpretations, T. J. Clark again serving as my foil for pointing out the limitations of a Marxist interpretation of painting. Clark interprets Manet's “Olympia” in the same way he interprets Courbet’s “The Stonecutters”. He sees the stereotypical depiction of its subject as a visually accurate description of a social role, in this case the role of courtesan. The painting was offensive to the bourgeois viewing public, he argued, because it so blatantly identified its subject as a prostitute, while other paintings of the time used prostitutes as the unacknowledged models for nudes. The picture was also scandalous because it was so overt a rejection of the bourgeois convention of referring nudes to the world of myth and other forms of culture. The direct stare of the model out into the world outside the painting showed the alienation and oppression of the prostitute, and thus of womankind in general.

This interpretation of the painting in terms of the correspondence of the figure in the painting to a real social role that is made vivid and therefore disconcerting to its viewers misses the way the picture operates on three different semiological levels: that of factual representation, that of typification, and as an indication of the shifting cultural moment. First of all, the details of the painting provide unsettling information. Olympia is a successful and unrepentant lady of leisure. Her removal from the demi-world is indicated by the comfort of her setting, the fact that she herself has a servant and a pet, the detailed appointments of her surroundings, her refined face and bearing, and her unmutilated and not distended body. Her sexuality has betrayed neither her comfort nor her self.

The painting also operates on the level of conventional stereotyping. It is a criticism of the history of the nude. While nudity is usually reserved for the rustic and randy, this painting turns nudity into the evocation of lust through the display of the nude in the intimate setting of her own home, and so is parallel to the role that lust plays as a private passion in middle class life. That “Olympia” may also be the picture of a courtesan simply deepens the dilemma of middle class sensuality, since this courtesan is not easily distinguishable from a middle class woman, and so is disconcerting to the middle class viewer who must decide if this is the kind of woman he can look at in public. Outrage is the respect that public life pays to the need of the private life for secrecy. The painting commissions outrage by keeping its instructions to its viewers ambiguous.

The nerve of the painting is its appropriation of a secret sexual life to the middle class, and goes against the Victorian prejudice that prostitutes were sensual while fine ladies were not. The picture represents a social fact: the existence of nakedness in private. It also represents a social structure: the crossover of sensuality into the middle class as a meaningful activity in compensation for public prudery. And it represents a cultural moment: the appropriation and transvaluation of purportedly lower class and country matters for a middle class just short of liberation.

The language of structure comes into its own during Impressionism, when it was still combined with an attempt at accurate depictions of subject matter. Clark may see three other major paintings by Manet as representing, in turn, the alienation of city life, of sex, and of womanhood. But these three paintings can be seen, instead, as successive steps in bourgeois portraiture, as is signalled to the viewer by the relation each of the pictures establishes between itself and the viewer.


The earliest of these three, “La Musique aux Tuileries”, is in the tradition of the landscape, but this time the subject of the is the gardens within the city of Paris, the public park rather than the natural country. People are at a secular, public festival, just like the peasants who had been at a fair, but this is a particularly bourgeois festival: a concert in the park which draws middle class couples and families to a decorous placement of themselves in rather narrow confines on crowded little picnic blankets. All this information is available from the picture itself as a matter of description. This is the way the bourgeois spend their leisure in Paris.

The painting also operates on the level of stereotype. The bourgeois pose for one another, fall into conventionalized group arrangements, even if a great many of these settings are squashed together, which suggests the atomistic quality of family life among the bourgeoisie. Each family is its own solar system. Families may not know the families sitting next to them, which is not the case in the crowd scenes of peasant life familiar from genre paintings. This same information can be recast on a third level. The various families can be parsed into separate compositions, if one changes the angle and focus of the frame, and so we are seeing a cultural shift away from painting as taking a grasp on a particular scene to painting as offering up numerous realities at once. The scenes in the painting are therefore not compositions for one another, but for the viewer, who abstracts their separation out from the apparent physical closeness of the families. In this case, geography lies.


The weightiness of this presentation of a landscape is clear when we consider how it can be adapted. “Luncheon on the Grass” uses the same idea and, with the excuse of just a little more space and a little shelter, turns the family picnic into an erotic occasion, where fully clothed men have lunch with a naked woman, neither the men or the woman taking notice of her condition. It is left to the painting to recognizes the erotic nature of her condition as a female, how she is an object for being unclothed either in fact or in fancy. The structure of the picture reminds the viewer of this possibility because the woman looks outside the picture into the range of the viewer as if to suggest that she and the viewer of the picture are in on the secret, while the men in the picture are at least pretending not to notice.

The nude turn on the stereotype of the bourgeois deepens a sense of what is part of the bourgeois sensibility, but leaves it disguised in that the audience for either of the two paintings of picnics is aware of these undercurrents more than are the participants in the painting-- with the possible exception of the nude woman. In neither of the two paintings are the characters in the painting an audience for the other people in the painting. The characters are each enmeshed in their private fantasies, each composition internally atomized into separate and segregated compositions of ever reduced numbers of characters to the point where each character is the subject of an individual portrait. This is not ensemble portraiture, but it’s opposite, the fragmentation of what is an erstwhile group portrait.

With these considerations in mind, turn back to “Olympia”, which is informative because it shows a putative courtesan not just as the subject of a painting, but as informing the audience that a courtesan knows she is being observed. The courtesan looks directly out at the viewer, which suggests a composed, unashamed and unmediated sense of her sensual nature. The careful placement of the hand suggests lewdness, because such a note of modesty is contrary to the directness of her gaze, and is called for only if any additional immodesty would be too shocking for a sensibility already tested to its limits.

The discrete placement of the hand also suggests that the nude knows she is being looked at for sexual reasons. She is aware of what she reaches out beyond the painting to do, as the luncheoners are not. Rather than a picture of the alienation of the prostitute, the picture is an affirmation of sensuality, pure and simple, and so does not require any reading concerning a social message about the evils of prostitution. That would have been far more easily acceptable to a bourgeois audience, who might use it as an illustration for an adage about the weakness of the flesh.


The portrait of the bar girl in Manet’s “A Bar Girl at the Folies Bergere” reverberates against Manet's two previous paintings. Clarke claims that the detachment of the bar girl indicates her alienation and that she can also be bought and sold. She doesn't belong in the social world which the mirror reflects. This moral message, Clarke admits, is largely speculation because he cannot make much sense out of much of the painting, particularly the way perspective is used in the picture. Clark settles for saying that there seem to be contradictory perspectives.

Manet's use of the mirror, and what it does to the perspective of the painting, is indeed key to understanding the painting, because the mirror and the perspective tell the viewer how to make sense out of the painting. The mirror does not function as a reflection of society, which is what a Marxist theory of knowledge requires, but as a picture of society that catches what is going on at the moment in the same way that Manet's picture catches what is going on only at the instant, as a kind of freeze frame which could be lost in a blink to even the observant eye. The picture as a whole is a play on whether the mirror is real or whether what is outside of it, hanging on its edges, is real. The girl is presented as independent of the material life that is going on about her, but this is a philosophical reflection on the nature of consciousness, rather than a moral about social class.

There is a good deal of direct information provided by this picture that can be used to think of it as a portrait of a stereotype, which means as a direct apprehension of the social class of its subject. She is centered, and is looking forward out of the frame towards the viewer as if she were placed for a portrait. Her distracted expression can be considered part of the stereotypical role of bar girl, caught between the mirror and the bar, bottles in front of her, stiff and upright while she waits for the next order, leaning against the bar with her arms reversed as if to ease the weight on her feet, or just to switch posture, or just to compensate for her boredom.

In the mirror, off to one side is a man who seems to be beckoning her attention to order a drink. He is not standing directly in front of her, in the position of the viewer, as Clark thinks, but to the left side of her, on a line parallel to the line between the bottles on the bar and their reflection in the mirror. Since the mirror is parallel to the bar, the viewer would see this line as a diagonal only if he were standing somewhat to the right of the bar girl, which resolves the problem of perspective, though Clark is correct in saying that the apparent perspective works against the idea of a diagonal. A realistically coherent perspective is just barely accomplished by making the point of view of the viewer close to the bar. The diagonal perspective is swallowed up by the massiveness of the mirror and its closeness to the bar.

Why this peculiar position for the viewer? It allows for the storyline of the painting to work through the portraiture. The bar girl is not looking at the viewer, but neither is she looking at the man who is about to give her an order. She is caught in the moment before she notices the man, and so is caught unawares, her face not composed for the interchange with the man, but uncomposed, with the vacant stare people have on their faces as they walk through city streets, preoccupied.

In capturing this moment, Manet does allude to the role-playing of the bourgeois that Clark finds described so vividly by the Goncourt brothers, and which he believes Manet has reflected in this painting, but the painting in question is less a picture of the way people behave than of the way they are when they aren't behaving, and so alludes more importantly to a state of consciousness, or an inevitable social process, rather than to a particular social role from which the bar girl is disengaged. The man at the bar is already smiling; the bar girl has not yet composed her smile. The creation of the world of social convention lies between those two moments.

The original and naive sense that this picture is a portrait is correct, but it is an altered kind of portrait, of a face not composed either by the subject or the artist to be looked at. This is a portrait of a woman who is not aware she is being looked at, while “Olympia” is a portrait of a woman who is aware she is being looked at, and “La Musique aux Tuileries” is a group portrait of people who pretend they are not being looked at.

The bourgeois sitting in the park look past one another so that they do not notice what they could notice. They are creating invisible walls to establish privacy. In fact, the viewer of the painting does not notice anything more about the people in the park than people just like those in the park have noticed about them, including the people who are looking at the painting at the same time any particular viewer is looking at it. The painting, in other words, recapitulates the visual world of the people outside the painting.

The woman in “Olympia”, on the other hand, looks out into the world beyond the painting in a focussed way that can meet the eyes of the audience, but her stare is indifferent to their gaze. This is parallel to the way the viewers of the painting look at her, each party acting as if they were indifferent to what they were seeing, to cover up the illicitness of the interchange. The bourgeois in the park set up invisible barriers, and the viewers of “Olympia” violate those invisible barriers so that they might intrude into privacy, even though the privacy they are violating is much more serious than that which occurs when we overhear the conversations of a nearby couple at a picnic.

The bar girl presents another turn on this theme of privacy. Manet has arranged the perspective so that the mirror does not reflect any part of the bar girl's face, only the bun of her hair. The bar girl thus is not reflected in the mirror, and so can be said to be disjointed from the world that is reflected in the mirror. Her face is in this sense hidden from the social life of the bar, and even from the man ordering a drink who may indeed see her as a tool for his purpose and so take no notice of her in any other way, may not attend to her face except to catch its attention. But the viewer does take notice of her.

Many of these features of the painting are the conventions for handling a nude. This painting is also a portrait of a nude in the sense that the bar girl's face is naked, the privacy of her distractedness, her uncomposed face, invaded, and that is why she seems vulnerable even though she is expressionless, and why the hustle bustle about her seems out of kilter with the portrait of her face.

Impressionism, in short, does not capture the bourgeois soul in order to provide a social criticism of it. It captures the bourgeois soul in order to yield something beyond it in the name of a dissociated consciousness. Marxists like Lukacs aside, bourgeois realism does not yield to critical realism and then to socialist realism, but traverses instead, in its evolution, a path to modernism and the rediscovery of myth, which meant an even deeper dip into human consciousness. Soon after Impressionism comes Freud, who shows that people want their privacy so that they can hide their sexual secrets from others and even from themselves.