I was walking through the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston the other day. I was having a particularly nasty studio day. Nothing was going well and every color I tried to mix ended up as mud. I figured I should go look at the work of people who knew what they were doing before I did anything else.
I ran into Elliot Bostwick Davis in the gift shop and we chatted briefly about the coming hurricane. Elliot is the John Moors Cabot Chair of the Art of the Americas and as such she is responsible for the new Art of the Americas Wing at the MFA. Personally, I love her for getting all of those Gilbert Stuart paintings back on the walls. I hadn't seen her since she did a panel discussion with Fred Wilson at Northeastern University so it was good to see her and catch up a little. We were both super worried about the effects of the storm on our neighborhoods (she's in Dedham, I'm in Hyde Park).
I didn't have a destination on this trip. Sometimes I go to the museum to look at something specific, but when I have a bad studio day, I prefer wandering. I find that my blocks in the studio mean that I need to see something in a new way. When this happens I know that I am looking for something and I am certain that I will recognize it when I see it. It may not even be something in the museum, but I know that I have to get out of my studio and look at some stuff - stuff that has nothing to do with me.
There's a Manet in the MFA collection called The Music Lesson. I hadn't seen it in a long time and it was up in the French room on the second floor. It's a double portrait of Zacharie Astruc and a woman holding sheet music. I'm certain this woman has a name and for a long time I thought it was Madame Manet but I have since learned that it isn't her. Because I hadn't seen it in a while, it was fresh to me.
It was like seeing someone you think is really attractive and then you realize it is someone you know and were in love with at some point.
What struck me this time in seeing it was how dark the painting is. It's very dark, but it doesn't feel flat. That was at odds with how I was experiencing the color. The restricted palette (save for the edge of the oriental carpet) still indicated a tremendous sense of weight and volume in the dress and in the full face of the woman. It was not a Cezanne solution where color next to color built up the weight of the image and it wasn't a picture that relied solely on drafting to create that illusion of weight (like Matisse). I looked at it for a long time and I was sort of stupefied as to how a picture so devoid of color interval and concessions to raking light could have such a dramatic physicality.
Anne Coffin Hanson has an essay called "Manet's Pictorial Language" that I never really understood until now. In it she talks about Manet as a painter who is thinking deeply about how we see and the way the facture of the painting contributes to the understanding of the image. She talks of Manet's brush "caressing" the contours of the figures. I can see it in this picture so clearly. Manet changes directions, applications, touch, and weight in this picture so often that a close investigation reveals the way that he is using mark and directionality to not only guide the eye, but to describe form. This I think is what allows him to create this mass of volume and in the fabric and the feeling of movement in the portraits. He is using the brush not just to depict the things in the painting, but he is moving the material of the paint into eddys and pockets that maintain their force as physical marks that convey a sense of volume. And it seems to me that he did it at the expense of a broad palette to focus the viewer's eye on the intervals of marks rather than those of color.
There is very little difference in color in the faces. Even the rosiness of the cheeks of the woman seem to be glazed rather than directly painted (which probably explains why they feel more like make-up). It is Manet's invention in the making of the marks that is creating the exceptional ease of the portraits and the immediacy of the painting.
Until now, I never really thought of Manet as someone who was developing a new language through mark making. I think I was so overcome by his compositions and directness, I never gave much thought to how he got to the wonderful economy of his pictures. I think a lot of painting focuses on obvious mark making as evidence of emotion or labor. In the Music Lesson, Manet equates touch and volume by invention of a system of marks that reveals itself on close inspection. It makes me want to reinvestigate the color sensations of other double portraits like In the Conservatory, or Boating to see how much of what I am reading as space is due to color and how much is related to directionality and mark making. The subtlety of Manet's inventions and the broad effect of them are clearer to me now.
And so back to work.