Manet’s Little Cavaliers

Manet, Little Cavaliers, after Velazquez (1861-2) 1st State, Etching and Drypoint retouched with Watercolor. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Major artists are often inspired by earlier masterpieces yet when the young Edouard Manet entered the Louvre to copy whatever he wanted he chose an insignificant little painting. Yes, it was then attributed to Velazquez but Manet, with an in-depth knowledge of technique, is likely to have suspected a lesser hand. That did not seem to trouble him or lessen his interest. The composition became a lietmotif throughout his career as the source, in part or in whole, for several of his later works. It has already been identified as the inspiration for The Spanish Cavaliers (1859) and Music in the Tuileries (1863).1 Yet, as I have shown elsewhere, it is also the compositional source for Croquet at Boulogne (1871) and possibly others as well.

Manet exhibited various states of his etching in at least three exhibitions and, in Juliet Wilson Bareau's words "republished the print as often as he could." The painting, she noted, "was undoubtedly of  major importance for Manet's work."2 From time to time I have puzzled over this problem. What was so important about it? Manet clearly thought as others did too that the scene represented a group of Spanish painters discussing art in the open air. Velazquez was said to be at far left. With Manet's interest in both Spanish art and art as the subject of art, he would have been drawn to this picture of well-known Spanish painters, holding swords as paintbrushes and hats as palettes.3

What struck me yesterday was the title. Les Petits Cavaliers or The Little Cavaliers. These men are artists because they are cavaliers or chevaliers in French, two similar words for knightsCavaliere in Italian and Caballeros in Spanish are their equivalents. As painters, then, the cavaliers would stand in front of an easel which is chevalet in French, cavaletto in Italian and caballete in Spanish. See the link? An easel with four legs has long been thought of as a horse as the words demonstrate, making the artist the rider and his paintbrush, his lance or sword. Many of the allegories that artists use are embedded in the Romance languages, if not in English. The knights in the pseudo-Velazquez are artists through wordplay, a method Manet often used as I show elsewhere. His Young Lady of 1866 dressed in her peignoir (nightgown) is a painter (peintre) who should paint (peigne). His well-known Execution of Emperor Maximilian known in several versions puns on an artist's execution of his painting.

Puns and wordplays require homospatial thinking in which the thinker finds a common link between two unlike forms. Few can do it though perhaps many among those who like this site. It is, in no small part, what turns a painter into an artist, the ability to think of two quite different scenes and make them one painting. As Van Gogh told his brother Theo in an important quote I have used before: "For a painter, it is probably twice as interesting if, while painting a nest, he dreams of a cottage and, while painting a cottage, he dreams of a nest. It is as though one dreamed twice, in two registers, when one dreams of an image cluster such as this. For the simplest image is doubled; it is itself and something else than itself."4

1. Manet 1832-1883 (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art) 1983, p. 121

2. Manet op. cit., p.121

3. The hat, at far right in the illustration, held thigh-high resembles a large eye looking out at us even in the original painting. With an artist's hand holding the "eye", Manet would have recognized painting's symbols for manual craft and visual perception, the hand and eye.

4. Cited in Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, trans. M. Jolas (Boston: Beacon Press) 1994 p.98.

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