Manet’s Nana (1877)

Manet's Nana, a courtesan or prostitute, has been linked to Emile Zola's novel of the same name even though the book was not published until three years later.1 Others have also noted how the concepts of cosmetics and painting had long been associated: paint with make-up, skin with canvas, and paintings themselves, especially of women, with ornamentation. That is not all. Mirrors were used by both women and artists; the small containers holding paint once resembled those for cosmetics; and the process of cleansing the face and smoothing the skin is similar to the artist's process on canvas.2

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Captions for image(s) above:

Manet, Nana (1877) Oil on canvas. Kunsthalle, Hamburg

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It is odd then, given those known links, that no-one seems to have noticed that Nana is based on the self-portrait of another great painter from France, Nicolas Poussin. Both heads turn to face us at exactly the same angle, with Nana's far hand, slightly cupped, reflecting in the distance the mirror-version of Poussin's. Nana, moreover, is painting her face just as Poussin paints his.

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Captions for image(s) above:

L: Detail of Manet's Nana
R: Detail of Poussin's Self-Portrait (1650) Louvre, Paris

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In addition, the golden frame of Nana's settee echoes the gilded frames of Poussin's paintings. A second figure also sits behind the principal one in each composition, their heads and torsos cropped by a frame: a painted one in Poussin's, the real one in Manet's, just as Poussin's figure is "painted" and Manet's "real". Poussin's painted woman is widely recognized as an emblem of Painting with the eye of Wisdom in her crown.3

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Captions for image(s) above:

A diagram of Manet's Nana (left) and Poussin's Self-Portrait.

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We have discussed Manet's Before the Mirror (near left) in a separate entry. It was painted the year before but like Nana it depicts "a female artist" in front of an "easel" wearing  exactly the same clothes. Nana's "customer" waiting behind her is a second alter ego of Manet who was known for his top hat and stylish dress.4

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Captions for image(s) above:

L: Manet, Nana (1877)
R: Manet, Before the Mirror (1876)

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Picasso understood all this and more. An etching made between 1969 and 1971 is very loosely based on Manet's Nana. A nude looks in a hand-mirror while painting her own eye but, because we in front of the image see her eye reflected, it must have been Picasso's eye she saw while painting her own. In other words, she is painting "Picasso's eye" on her own body. It is a very important point. The clown, meanwhile, is "painting" the nude even though they apparently share the same reality. It is an excellent example of how the studio and the painting are often fused into one scene. (See other examples in The Artist with His/Her Art)

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Captions for image(s) above:

Picasso, Untitled from Suite 156, n.58 (c.1969-71)

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Picasso thus makes evident what Manet and others concealed. In a separate entry on Picasso's etching you can also read Karen Kleinfelder's insightful interpretation of the scene. Her words apply equally well, in the more conservative fashion of the mid-nineteenth century, to Manet's composition. By 1877 Woman as a concept had become painting's iconic subject just as in Poussin's day the allegorical figure of Painting symbolized the medium too. Thus Manet makes clear that all art, like Nana herself, is a self-representation of the artist's androgynous and deified mind at the moment of the artwork's creation though, as the waiting customer suggests, conception is necessary; the artist must be at one with his work.

Notes:

1. The character Nana first appeared at the end of Zola's L'Assommoir which was published the same year as Manet's Nana in 1877. She is portrayed as the daughter of an abusive drunk with the novel ending just as she is about to start her climb from streetwalker to courtesan. There is still no reason to think that the composition of the painting has anything to do with Zola's character though it is conceivable that Manet, after painting the image, read the novel and chose the name.

2. Tamar Garb, The Painted Face: Portraits of Women in France, 1814-1914 (Yale University Press) pp. 1-4; Caroline Palmer, "Brazen Cheek: Face-Painters in Late Eighteenth-Century England", Oxford Art Journal 31, 2, 2008, pp. 199-200

3. Howard Hibbard, Poussin: The Holy Family on the Steps (London: Allen Lane) 1974, p. 24

4. The man behind Nana sits watching, as C├ęzanne himself does in his own version of Manet's Olympia known as A Modern Olympia II (1873-4).  

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 25 Jul 2011. © 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.