Manet/Velazquez at the Met (2003)

This was an extraordinary exhibition – in fact, three exhibitions in one. First, Velazquez and the Spanish Old Masters; second, Manet and his contemporaries; third, the Great American Portraitists. Like all major Metropolitan exhibitions these days, it was too big, and the “story” it told could have been better presented in half the space. But as a collection of paintings, it was, as I said, extraordinary.

The common thread was simple: Velazquez invented , or at least perfected, the realistic single figure isolated against an indeterminate background, with real space around. Manet copied this trope verbatim, and so did the Americans – Eakins, Whistler, Sargent, Chase. Whether this is any better or meaningfully different from the portraiture of Hals, Rembrandt, van Dyck, Rubens or countless others was not addressed.

But why later artists studied at the feet of Velazquez and called him the master had to do with more than this style of portraiture. Indeed, much of Velazquez’s oeuvre was of a different sort, starting with his royal portraits and climaxing with Las Meninas, The Spinners and his scene paintings. Conversely, the art of Manet, and even more the other French painters shown, was influenced by many precedents other than Spanish art – as Patrick Noon’s Crossing the Channel will show.

So let’s just admire this exhibition for its strength: great pictures, not the least from the Met’s own collection, but also from the Prado and seemingly every other major museum you can name. My particular favorite was Velazquez’s Aesop, much more painterly in person than in reproduction (Aesop’s right thumb composed of heavy smudges of paint). But the color tones and the sensitivity of the treatment were as impressive as the technique. For a wholly unrelated work, I was just as struck by Ribera’s Mystical Marriage of St. Catherine, a work belonging to the Met that I had either never seen or sufficiently noticed before.

The link from Goya to Manet is the most direct of the show’s connections, and the Met has the richness in its own Manets that a few Goyas from Madrid – like Majas on the Balcony – completed the picture. My favorite Goya was a small scene of holiday revelers, forming a ‘V’ overlooking the city below. A crocus of a picture!

The revelation in the American gallery was the comparison of the MFA’s Children of Edward Darley Boit by Sargent with Las Meninas, which Sargent also copied. Was it a direct homage, or did Sargent just borrow a composition that worked? Whistler’s Composition in Grey and Green from the Tate was just as beautiful as it was in Nashville last year. And although the other works by Sargent, Chase and Eakins were familiar, how amazing to see them stacked up against each other, together holding the bar so high.

Because there were so many masterpieces, the show was a little short of the “discoveries” one hopes for in an exhibition. Anything not truly great suffered in comparison. But going through the Manet/Velazquez show was like taking a stroll through Jansen, and remembering just how exciting art history can be.

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