Manet’s The Spanish Singer (1860)
This 1860 painting by the then little-known Manet caused such a stir among younger artists that they paid a group visit to his studio. Although those artists may have been excited about Manet’s novel technique, what concerns us is his meaning. Once again, it is the problems that others complain about that helps pave our way.
Although the figure of the singing guitarist seems Spanish even contemporaries noted that the costume was inauthentic and that he seemed posed in a studio. One criticized “the Marseilles-type jacket and the pants of this guitarrero from Montmartre.”1 Emile Zola remarked that while Manet’s public might suppose that his models were Spanish, they ought to know that Manet kept “Spanish costumes in his studio and liked their colors.”2
The contemporary awareness of a studio setting and the mix of French and Spanish clothing is important because Manet must have intended what others can see. The underlying scene is therefore in a studio and, given that every painter paints himself, it should also represent an artist and a model. Manet was French, of course, inspired in part by Spanish masters so the Franco-Spanish fusion in his clothing represents the Franco-Spanish heritage in Manet's mind.
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This cultural fusion is further strengthened by the main reference in the singer’s Spanish-looking head. No-one has noted that it derives from the work of a French master, Watteau, and his well-known self-representation in Gilles.3 Note the similar hats over white headbands of the two “artists” and how Manet fused the singer’s face with the wide-mouthed expression of Watteau’s actor in white below. Manet would have known Watteau identified with Gilles and that Watteau had signified his own “sanctity” with a halo-like hat. Manet did likewise in black.
In addition artists often wore turbans in the studio or wrapped their heads in a handkerchief to keep paint off their hair. It may look fitting in the scene but the white kerchief under their hats has another purpose too, in both Watteau's painting and Manet's. Both figures are "painters".
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Even the curious position of the guitarist's legs is based on how some painters rest theirs on the crossbar of an easel, as seen (below left) in Adriaen van Ostade's The Painter, a Dutch artist Manet admired. Even in a damaged icon by the young El Greco of St Luke painting the Virgin (top right), you can see the painter's raised leg on the bar. And both images by El Greco and van Ostade include a simple bench for their paint-pots like the one Manet's singer sits on. Manet's, painted green, the color of creativity, even has his signature on its right-hand edge.
Manet was also aware that many artists including Titian, Rembrandt and Rubens had used gold chains and other symbols of honor in their self-portraits to represent their mastery and achievement. In nineteenth-century France, though, gold chains as such had disappeared and the Legion d’Honneur was now the nation's highest honor, mainly worn as a small red rosette or short red ribbon. Here Manet disguises it as a short strip of red at the end of the guitar’s arm.
See conclusion below
More Works by Manet
An early example of how Manet turns a modern woman, and his future wife, into an artist
This magical composition hides a complex thought of seeming effortless construction: a masterpiece of the first order
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