Manet’s Tragic Actor (1865-6) Part 1
Manet, like many French artists before him including Watteau, thought of painting as a performance art. He portrayed an alter ego as an actor or stage-performer in a number of major compositions, of which The Tragic Actor is one of the best-known. It depicts a well-known star of the French theater, Philibert Rouvière, who also happened to be a part-time painter. Since the Shakepearean actor had exhibited a painting, Self-Portrait as Hamlet, in the Salon of 1864, Manet must have thought of Rouvière as an ideal alter ego, an actor/painter. Besides he was known for playing Hamlet, a role that has been called a poetic "self-portrait of the artist".1 For Manet, though, extraneous information was not enough. He needed to demonstrate the creative process within the painting itself even if the model's actual role in life was often an important factor in Manet's selection of models.
The actor’s finger pointing downwards recalls Goya’s Portrait of the Duchess of Alba in which her finger aims at Goya’s name scrawled in sand at her feet. "Only Goya", it reads, as if to say from the real Duchess' point-of-view "Only Goya for me" but from her point-of-view as an alter ego, "I am Goya". In Manet’s portrait, though, his name is substituted by the suggestion of an M formed by the sword and the shadow of Rouvière’s legs. It is not an exact M but, in the poetic language of painting, there is enough to infer it.
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The sword, as explained under Brush and Palette, has a long tradition in art as a symbol for a paintbrush. Here Manet imagines himself as an actor with his "paintbrush" at his feet. The actor stands, as even a contemporary noted, like a figure in a Velazquez portrait surrounded by empty space.2 Its resemblance to a Velazquez portrait is very important because on the floor the sword is facing in the "wrong" direction. It is pointing into the picture from our space as though it was Velazquez's brush, and not out of it.
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Indeed there are two entirely different light-sources on the floor. The shadow of the legs veers off to the right as though lit from low on the left. The sword, however, is lit from above because.... as "Velazquez's brush" it is lying on top of "the painting", lit by natural light, not painted light. There are two realities here: that of the “painting” in which the actor is portrayed, and that of Velazquez's studio in which the brush/sword lies on the surface of the painting. That not only explains the difference in the shadows but why Rouvière's shadow "in the painting" within the painting forms a V for Velazquez.
See conclusion below
More Works by Manet
Artists do not have to use their own features in a portrait of someone else. There are other ways of identifying with the sitter as Manet demonstrates in this portrait.
See how smoke and mirrors turn the outside of Manet's studio into the inside
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