Manet’s Boy with a Sword (1861)

Manet's painting of his son dressed in the Dutch manner holding a giant sword has never made much sense. As almost always, though, Manet's sources - the paintings he "copied" from - are significant and help explain his meaning. It has occasionally been noted that Manet might have adopted the boy's pose from an Italian painting not a Dutch one: Caravaggio's Alof de Wignacourt and his Page in the Louvre.1

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Captions for image(s) above:

Manet, Boy with a Sword (1861) Oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum, New York

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Although Manet knew the original, he probably used an engraving because the pose is inverted. But why did he use a boy who is not the principal sitter? Wignacourt was the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta and his page would aim for a similar title. Thus the young Manet, who aimed to become a French Grand Master himself, wittily used the protegé of a French "Grand Master" as his source.  

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Captions for image(s) above:

L: Caravaggio, Portrait of Alof de Wignacourt and His Page (1607-8) Oil on canvas. Louvre, Paris
R: Engraving after Caravaggio's Alof de Wignacourt and His Page

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As regular users know, a sword in art is often on the poetic level a paintbrush. (See the many examples described here.) Manet even used a sword as a paintbrush in his celebrated picture of Mlle. V in the Costume of an Espada the next year. [See its own entry.]

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Captions for image(s) above:

Manet, Mlle. V. in the Costume of an Espada (1862)

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As a student Manet had copied a figure by Andrea del Sarto of a woman holding a giant sword (bottom). He was presumably attracted not by its originality but by its meaning. He might also have seen other works in which the symbol for the paintbrush is greatly enlarged as in Titian's use of an arrow in Venus and Adonis (top). Swords are full of symbolism. In alchemical literature they bring about the solutio or separation of the elements; they represent ideas penetrating consciousness; they both vivify and kill. The sword is, Jung wrote, the force which turns something infintessimally small into something infinitely great.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Titian, Venus and Adonis (c. 1553) Oil on canvas. Prado, Madrid
Bottom: Manet, Justice after Andrea del Sarto (c.1857)

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Thus Boy with a Sword, painted at the very beginning of Manet's career, is his oath to painting. He declares his loyalty to Art through an image of his son holding a giant  "paintbrush". The use of his son who represents Manet "born-again" and ready to confront the future clearly indicates Manet's vast ambition.

Interestingly, an online grocery in the New York area promotes its managers holding the tools and products of their profession in giant form (near left). They  too concisely express their employee's devotion to his or her trade. Manet, essentially, did the same.

Captions for image(s) above:

L: Manet, Boy with a Sword
R: Photographs of Fresh Direct Product Managers holding the tools or product of their profession. The images are copyright of Fresh Direct Inc.

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Notes:

1. A number of explanations for Boy with A Sword have been offered. Reff noted that because the boy ‘looks’ at the artist the sword is a symbol of Manet as a 17th century courtier in the guise of Velazquez, a fairly accurate interpretation (Reff, 1962, pp. 185). Moffett suggested that it may refer to Manet’s accomplishments as a swordsman which is quite wrong as Manet’s personal interests and concerns do not appear in his work (New York, 1983, p.76). A more recent but far-fetched interpretation is that the sword is an emblem of Manet’s sexual and amorous transgressions (Brombert, 1994, p.496). Swords also appear in the Second Frontispiece etching, La Peche, Mlle V. in the Costume of an EspadaLuncheon in the Studio, Faure as Hamlet, The Tragic Actor and The Dead Toreador

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 04 Mar 2012. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.