Manet’s Modern Methods

Left: Manet, Boy with a Sword (1861) Oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum, New York
Right: Fresh Direct poster and web images (2012)

I was crossing the road when a delivery truck owned by a prominent online grocery in the New York area stopped at a light. It displayed a poster of their managers holding a blow-up of the product each specializes in (right). One of the meat managers or butchers, most interestingly (lower left), holds a massive knife as symbol of her craft just as Manet’s Boy with a Sword holds a giant “paintbrush” (left). Painted at the beginning of Manet’s career Boy with a Sword has puzzled art historians ever since. I explained the painting’s meaning in its own entry earlier this year: how Manet’s presumed son represents Manet himself embarking on his career while swords are an age-old symbol in art for a paintbrush.

The help provided by this poster leads to a recommendation that I try to make as often I can. I do so because it is so useful for the layman art lover that it should be part of every art history curriculum in schools. Many of the little-known techniques used by great artists over the centuries have not been forgotten. They remain in wide use today by illustrators and graphic designers who use these tricks of perception, as artists do more subtly, to help convey their message. Indeed despite the hundreds of examples already published on this site, many thousands more remain unseen. Familiarize yourself with the visual tricks of graphic design today and you may find yourself unlocking the meaning of a masterpiece.

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