Manet’s Spanish Singer Raises a Leg

L: Edouard Manet, Spanish Singer, detail (1862) Metropolitan Museum, New York
R: El Greco, St. Luke Painting the Virgin, detail (before 1567) Benaki Museum, Athens.

Inspiration can come from anywhere so it's a good idea to look at the art of all periods. Artists do so, no matter which century they live in. A few days ago I solved one of my long-standing problems with a picture by the19th-century artist Edouard Manet (left) while I was studying a 16th-century icon. It happens to be an early and much-damaged painting by El Greco (right),

Who sings with their leg frozen in space like that? Manet’s Spanish Singer in New York’s Metropolitan Museum is a curious picture but mostly because of the pose. Four years ago I explained the singer as a hidden artist, strumming his guitar as a metaphoric palette. The legs, though, made no sense and most art historians ignore them. Then in looking at El Greco’s icon, I saw what Manet was doing. I wasn't even thinking of the modern master; the pose just made him pop into my mind. Painters rest their legs on the crossbar of their easel and by taking the bar away but keeping the pose, Manet conveyed the movement of the singer but with a pose that symbolizes the calm and steady hand of the artist. They rest their feet on the bar to help keep their arm and body still. To paint life in motion, artists need stillness, not only in their hands but in their minds. It is a paradox. Yet Manet saw a poetic metaphor in that odd fact and captured the leg perfectly: both moving and frozen. There's an illusion here too. If you look at the singer's foot in front of the diagonal support under the bench, the support resembles a crossbar, almost as if the singer's foot is resting on it! Note how El Greco's crossbar is at a similar angle.

L: Edouard Manet, Spanish Singer, detail (1862)
R: Adriaen van Ostade, The Painter, detail inverted (c.1647) Engraving.

I subsequently came across an etching by Adriaen van Ostade (right), an artist the young Manet much admired, in which the painter's leg adopts an even more similar pose. In fact, he need not have seen either of these examples to have used it. No doubt he rested his foot on the bar himself. It is now fairly evident that Manet’s figure paints as do so many other figures by the master. They almost always do. Indeed, nearly 50 paintings, drawings and prints by Manet have been explained this way on EPPH and I have many more to do.

Lastly, the green bench on which Manet placed his signature. It’s a variation of the many makeshift benches and low tables that artists keep near their easels to hold various accessories, as in both the El Greco icon and the Dutch print.

For the full entry on Manet's Spanish Singer (1860), newly revised and updated, click here.

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