Manet’s Before the Mirror (1876)

This 1876 painting by Manet of a woman standing before her dressing-room mirror is always read at face value as a woman in front of her mirror. Where is the poetry in that? 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Manet, Before the Mirror (1876) Oil on canvas. Guggenheim Museum, New York

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Richard Brettell believes, for instance, that Manet was inspired by a painting by Berthe Morisot (left) completed the year before. He believes that it is "a close homage" and that Manet's adoption of Morisot's style of brushwork was a mark of respect.1 This ignores the fact that Morisot was Manet's artistic inferior. It, therefore, sounds most unlikely and it is.

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Berthe Morisot, Woman at Her Toilette (c. 1875)

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What Manet has done instead is an act of showmanship. He has taken a relatively uninteresting painting by a minor artist and shown what a great master does with the same subject. He has identified with a female painter (his androgynous mind) standing before her "work" which, being a mirror, reflects herself. Posed like an artist she holds a cloth, as though about to wipe some paint on the canvas. By imitating Morisot’s brushstrokes in the mirror he even pretends that it is Morisot painting herself! The wit is wicked because if Morisot was flattered by her influence on Manet, she was as mistaken as Brettel. Manet was famous for the sharpness of his humor in conversation. Here we see it in paint.

Captions for image(s) above:

Manet, Before the Mirror (1876)

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Notes:

1. Brettell, Impression: Painting Quickly in France, 1860-1890 (Yale University Press) 2000, p. 91

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Original Publication Date: 27 Oct 2010
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