Absence of Color, Not Absence of Style

“Color is a matter of taste and sensitivity,” said Edouard Manet, the 19th century French painter. Yet, as “Manet in Black” at the Museum of Fine Arts demonstrates, the absence of color provides just as much opportunity for preference and subtlety. The show displays none of Manet’s paintings and instead focuses on his smaller etchings and lithographs, many of which are in the museum’s own collection. Included in the exhibit are illustrations from Manet’s collaborations with poets, including illustrations for Stéphane Mallarmé’s French translation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” and many depictions of the same subjects featured in some of Manet’s most famous paintings. The variety of works is intended to reveal a lesser-known—but no less personal and creative—side of the man credited with the invention of modern art.

Manet’s monochromic etchings and lithographs, which contain rich varieties of texture and line quality, relate thematically to his paintings. Though his paintings do incorporate colors, they also emphasize his interest in strong tonal composition and contrast. “He is an artist who is quite interested in black and gray as colors, so its interesting how that goes into his print making,” says Henri Zerner, a professor in the Department of History of Art and Architecture. The lithographs, Zerner believes, are particularly spectacular and coherent with Manet’s general oeuvre. “Obviously they’re not a major aspect of his work—he is above all a painter—but they are quite significant, and he is a wonderful printmaker.”

The sleek, black theme of the show is also a reflection of the culture in which Manet lived and worked. In the introductory plaque at the exhibit, curator Helen Burnham explains how Manet’s friend and contemporary Charles Baudelaire called black the color of the 19th century, referencing the period’s culture, art and fashion. It is also a reflection of Manet’s own lifestyle. “He was a fairly elegant fellow himself. He wasn’t exactly a bohemian,” says Clifford S. Ackley, the chair of the Prints, Drawings and Photographs Department at the MFA.

According to Ackley, one of the primary goals of the exhibit is to broaden the general public’s view of Manet as not just a painter but also a talented printmaker and illustrator. “It’s a side of Manet that many people don’t know,” he says. Ackley thinks that this side also demonstrates another significant facet of Manet’s innovative nature. “He was very inventive with lithography, like ‘The Races’ or ‘The Barricade,’ which have extremely juicy use of lithographic crayon and are very expressive,” he says. Devoting a show solely to these smaller works, Zerner points out, is vital for their recognition, as they would otherwise get lost alongside Manet’s larger paintings.

Not only do the works present a lesser-known side of Manet, they also present a more intimate reflection of the artist’s work, some feel. Matthew R. Saunders, a visiting lecturer in the Department of Visual and Enviromental Studies, believes the visual artists of Manet’s era often worked hand-in-hand with the publishing industry. “Most of them got involved at some level with graphic arts, whether it was paying the bills by making illustrations for the newspapers or publishing prints as another way to circulate your work and to make money,” he says. Saunders thinks that showing these types of works gives the audience more of a sense of the day-to-day lives of the artist. “I’m certainly always interested in seeing that it’s really what he spent most of his days doing, probably,” Saunders said.

The show includes several paintings by artists who were influences on or contemporaries of Manet. Works by Edgar Degas, Felix Bracquemond, and Rembrandt van Rijn hang alongside works by Manet that are similar in content or technique. This context for Manet’s work emphasizes the contrast between the element of tradition present in Manet’s work and the creative ways in which he broke with that tradition. “You both understand the line of thought better and you see the differences between different hands and minds, different artists at work on the same topic, and that is more revealing than just walking around and admiring a bunch of great looking Manet paintings,” Saunders says. Though it is not the sort of “blockbuster” show, as Saunders puts it, which is more common for such pivotal artists like Manet, “Manet in Black” is an insightful presentation of a more understated portion of Manet’s body of work.

—Staff writer Rebecca J. Mazur can be reached at rmazur@college.harvard.edu.

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