The Guest Work is an original Bilbao Fine Arts Museum programme designed to show local art lovers major works from other museums or collections to enhance their understanding of artists with works in the Museum collection or to show them artworks by artists not included there. This series of single-work exhibitions began in 2001 and since 2004 has been generously sponsored by the Fundación Banco Santander.
On this occasion, the twenty-seventh in the series, the Museum presents a portrait, of high quality and expressiveness despite the simplicity of composition, by Édouard Manet (Paris, 1832-83), a key figure in the transition from Realism to Impressionism. Manet rescued painting from its academic realistic backwater, bringing major thematic and technical innovations to his scenes, a trait that did not endear him to the more academically minded artists. Despite his differences with many colleagues, he became very popular and his painting was defended by the avant-garde of the day.
Despite the model's cheerful irreverence, this portrait is tinged with tragedy. Alexandre, an adolescent of humble origins who cleaned Manet's brushes and occasionally sat for him, committed suicide when he was fifteen in the artist's own atelier in the rue Lavoisier. Profoundly affected by the death of his assistant, Manet completed the painting at his studio in the rue de la Victoire, where he moved after the event.
Fellow artist Berthe Morisot evoked the suicide in a notebook, in which she mentions the painting, at one time the property of her husband Eugène Manet, the artist's brother. Poet Charles Baudelaire wrote a short story dedicated to Manet inspired by the episode, La Corde (The Rope), which originally appeared in Le Figaro on 7 February 1864 and was subsequently published in the poet's collection Le Spleen de Paris.
In the story Baudelaire makes Manet say: "He sat for me more than once and I transformed him into a gypsy boy, an angel and mythological love. [...] I should only say that at times he surprised me with some terribly precocious fits of melancholy and soon revealed an immoderate taste for sugar and liqueur. [...] You can imagine the nasty shock I got when, on arriving home, the first thing I saw was my lad, my cheerful companion, hanging from a projection of a wardrobe!" The boy's mother asked Manet for the rope her son had used to hang himself, with the macabre idea of selling bits of it to the neighbours: "It wasn't hard to see what his mother needed the rope for or the kind of business she intended to console herself with."
Acquired by Gulbenkian in 1910, this youthful work, inspired ultimately by Caravaggio and 17th-century Dutch genre painting, is part of a realist tradition of representation, with a low stone wall delimiting the area of the composition. Manet links the immediate theme of a portrait with a still life of cherries, an allegory of the senses.
Underlying this representation of the everyday as a theme for painting is a model of modernity closely attuned to the Baudelairean vision of reaffirming contemporary reality. However, it is more than likely that Manet reworked the boy's hands, as they evince the sheer visual and stylistic quality found in subsequent works.
Alexandre also appears in an engraving from 1862, entitled Boy and dog (Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris), from the notebook 8 Gravures à l'eau-forte par Édouard Manet, published by Alfred Cadart.
Text: Luisa Sampaio
Curator, Fundaçao Calouste Gulbenkian (Lisbon)
Édouard Manet (Paris, 1832-1883)
The Boy with Cherries, c. 1858-59
Oil on canvas, 65.5 x 54.5 cm
Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon