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

This much-admired painting by the thirty-year old Edouard Manet has long mystified viewers. Yet as an early work by someone with major influence on subsequent painting, it can show us new ways of looking (new to us, that is) that probably few but an artist have ever seen.

Mlle. V....in the Costume of an Espada is an odd title for an odd painting. It depicts a scene resembling a bullring but that is all; little else makes sense. As art scholars rightly observe, there are at least seven visual problems in this painting which they have never been able to answer simply with a single response. Here are the questions: Why is a woman in a bullring? And why does her pink cloth bear no resemblance to the color and shape of a matador’s cape?

Why is the woman so large when figures nearby are so small? And why is she pasted onto a tipped up, spatially unconvincing ground?

Why is the background broadly-brushed when her figure is smooth? Why did Manet copy the picador motif from Goya and not compose it himself? Why does her shadow stretch half-way across the ring?

The answer to these questions can only be found, I believe, by thinking through Manet's mind.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Manet, Mlle V.... in the Costume of an Espada (1862) Oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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The matador is not in the ring; she is the artist painting the background with a "palette" in one hand and a "brush" in the other. The sword, as I often show, represents a "paintbrush." The "artist" turns from her canvas while "painting" the top left-hand corner.

The basic form of her cape, less the hanging tail, is the shape of an oversized palette with her unseen thumb penetrating where the thumb-hole would be.

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Captions for image(s) above:

A diagram of Manet's underlying concept in which Mlle V paints the background

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She holds it, moreover, like Ingres holds his cloth in an earlier self-portrait (near left) while also looking out over her shoulder.1

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Captions for image(s) above:

Comparison of the matador's cape in Manet's Mlle V to Ingres' Self-portrait

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The picador motif was taken from a print by Goya because the background is "a Spanish painting." That "painting" of a bull-fight symbolizes the creative struggle in an artist's mind to conceive a masterpiece. It explains why the background, a "painting", is more broadly-brushed than the "artist's" figure and why the male toreadors are so small.

Even her implausibly long shadow really strikes the vertical surface nearby, an upright "canvas"

See conclusion below

Captions for image(s) above:

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

Click image to enlarge.

The "artist", a known model named Victorine Meurend, not only conveys the androgyny of Manet's creative mind but represents that every painter paints himself as well.2 By depicting the model as the artist, as other artists have also done, the idea is succinctly stated.3 Lastly, why does Mlle V turn away from her canvas? Normally that motion would indicate that the artist was checking his or her live model in the studio against what had been painted on the canvas but, here conceptually, there is no model. No, Mlle V. is doing what Velazquez does in Las Meninas which is why Manet titled this painting with the initial V, for Victorine and Velazquez. Manet-as-Victorine then imagines himself as Goya and Velazquez by the same method he used next year in Olympia. V. is turning to look in the mirror. She see herself. The entire surface of the painting like Las Meninas and Olympia is the surface of a mirror and thus metaphorically the surface of the artist's mind, the same universal mind shared perhaps by all artists.

Notes:

This analysis was first published online in a different form in 2005. It was first published here on April 20th 2010.

1. That turn of the head over the shoulder is a common sign in art for an artist's alter ego. You can find out why in Over The Shoulder Poses.

2. Victorine Meurend had already posed for Delacroix thereby raising her artistic significance in Manet's eyes.

2. Corot, Matisse and Picasso posed their models working or thinking at an easel on many occasions.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 31 Jan 2013. © 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.