Re-writing Writers on Art

Manet, Stéphane Mallarmé (1876) Oil on canvas. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

Years ago I thought that the Renaissance humanists who fought to have painting accepted as a liberal art knew a lot about the subject. It seemed a natural assumption but I was wrong. For us in search of art’s underlying meaning, it’s more important to absorb literature's philosophy and veiled allegories than listen to what Shakespeare or other celebrated writers have to say about painting. In 16th-century England there was probably very little significant art for the Bard to see anyway and he rarely mentioned it.

Even great modern authors though don’t seem to know much about painting including, as our main examples today, Edouard Manet’s close literary friends and supporters in the 19th century: Charles Baudelaire, Emile Zola and Stéphane Mallarmé (above). And they, knowing Manet personally, were in a better position than most. I am not alone. David Carrier questions whether any of those three understood the painter and his works.1 The poet Mallarmé who was “one of those rare writers willing to credit a visual artist with a degree of perceptiveness”2 wrote:

‘But the chief charm and true characteristic of one of the most singular men of the age is that Manet (who is a visitor to the principal galleries [in the Louvre] both French and foreign, and an erudite student of painting) seems to ignore all that has been done in art by others, and draws from his own inner conciousness all his effects of simplification, the whole revealed by effects of light incontestably novel.’3

Though beautifully crafted, it’s pap for the public as EPPH's analysis of Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, Olympia and 45 other works by Manet help demonstrate. Zola also claimed that Manet's art was essentially simple though the painter, supremely self-confident and content to keep his art veiled, published Zola's asinine commentary in the catalogue of his own exhibition!

"He [Manet] arranges the figures before him, more or less at random, and then is only interested in getting them down on the canvas as he sees them, with all the vivid contrasts that they make with one another. Ask nothing else from him than an exactly literal translation. He does not know how to sing or to philosophise. He knows how to paint and that is all…"4

After those unsuccessful attempts, the honesty with which Gustave Flaubert admitted he understood nothing about Manet’s paintings is rather refreshing. It’s an appropriate and respectful response. It helps support our point too.5

Charles Baudelaire, whose impact on art history has been greater than the others, was certain that he knew as much about art as painters. He was brilliant but the fact that he chose an insignificant draughtsman, Constantin Guys, as his main example in The Painter of Modern Life (1863) is a warning sign many ignore.6 And he published the essay in the same year his friend Manet was the talk-of-the-town. Guys, he expounded, was a man of power and originality yet the art world is in universal agreement that he was neither of the two. But worse, he describes painting’s art as no more profound than taking snapshots in a crowd, the painter strolling about as a flâneur. No wonder Van Gogh gave him short shrift:

“Ah, Rembrandt!...despite all [my] admiration for Baudelaire I dare to assume...that he knew almost nothing about Rembrandt.”7

Nor were these four alone. Zachary Astruc, an art critic and yet another of Manet’s friends, remarked that the great masters ‘compose for the eye, very little for the brain.’8 And we all know how wrong that is.

Even 500 years ago when modern art theory began, the most-cited texts are equally disappointing. The foundational treatise on painting by Leon Battista Alberti, published in 1435, is seriously misguided except on the technical aspects of the craft and a brief mention of Narcissus as the legendary inventor of painting.9 Instead, in a highly influential passage he proposed that painting was like a view through a window. It is, as we now know, nothing like that though writers think so. It is instead a view inside the artist’s mind which means there is neither a “window” nor a viewer other than the artist. If anything, art is like a mirror as Alberti’s Narcissus reference could have suggested to him but it was a concept he quickly passed over.

In between the Renaissance and modern writers are a host of others who considered visual art as either mere copying of nature or an illustration of literature, be it the Bible or their own plots. Thomas Puttfarken, specialising in Renaissance art, has also challenged the majority view, claiming the Renaissance humanists who promoted painting had no particular love of the art nor any particular belief about its merits. What they wanted, he claims, was to widen the number of subjects they could write about and their century-long debate over the merits of painting and poetry allowed them to do just that.10 This might have been the motive in the 19th century too. So few understand visual art, major writers can say almost anything and get away with it.

I now take their words with a paint-pot of saline solution. They needed so much time to develop their own craft that there was not enough left to understand painting. As readers know, time spent looking is never wasted because there is so much to see. Earlier scribes, with far less access to art’s masterpieces than we have today, failed to grasp that. And that, in turn, might explain why artists recognize the shared philosophy between literature and art but writers don’t. Not that the artists are more insightful when they themselves write but that’s a topic for another post.


1. David Carrier, “Manet and His Interpreters”, Art History 8, Sept. 1985, p.328

2. Jane Mayo Roos, “Manet and the Impressionist Moment” in Therese Dolan (ed.), Perspectives on Manet (Farnham, UK: Ashgate) 2012, p. 81

3. Mallarmé, “The Impressionists and Edouard Manet”, The Art Monthly Review, vol. 1, Sept. 1876, reprinted in A Painter’s Poet: Stephane Mallarme and His Impressionist Circle (Hunter College of the City University of New York) 1998, p. 40

4. Zola, Ed. Manet: Etude biographique et critique (Paris) 1867

5. Pierre Sorlin, L’Art sans Règles: Manet contre Flaubert (Saint-Denis: Presses Universitaires de Vincennes) 1995, p.8 cited in Eliza E. Rathbone, “Manet: The Significance of Things” in Impressionist Still-Life (Washington DC: Phillips Collection) 2001, p.17

6. Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, trans. and ed. J. Mayne (London: Phaidon) 1995

7. Peter Hecht, Van Gogh and Rembrandt (Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum) 2006, p.37

8. Zacharie Astruc, Les 14 Stations du Salon - 1859, p.270 cited in Joseph C. Sloane, French Painting: Artists, Critics, & Traditions from 1848 to 1870 (Princeton University Press) 1973, p.116

9. L. B. Alberti, On Painting, trans.Cecil Grayson (London: Penguin) 1991

10. Thomas Puttfarken, Titian and Tragic Painting: Aristotle’s Poetics and the Rise of the Modern Artist (Yale University Press) 2005, p.32

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