The Spanish Singer


Edouard Manet ( French, 1832 - 1883 )

1861 (?)
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General Description

The Spanish Singer is among the earliest masterpieces in watercolor produced by Edouard Manet. It related directly to a major painting of the same title, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which was exhibited to considerable acclaim at the Salon of 1861 under the title, "Spaniard Playing the Guitar." Unlike many earlier French painters, Manet seems not to have used a graphic preparatory process for the painting, preferring to work directly from the model and making his numerous adjustments to the composition on the painting itself. Rather than a preliminary study, this major watercolor is a reduction of the painting, probably made at the request of Manet's friend and the first owner of the work, Antonin Proust, after the success of the painting at the Salon. It may also have served Manet as he translated the painting into the graphic medium of etching. "The Spanish Singer" was etched by Manet in 1861 and was printed in five states between 1861 and 1863. Manet's process of translation from painting to print has been extensively studied by Juliet Wilson Bareau, who notes that the drawings and prints stemming from the Metropolitan's "Spanish Singer" created a pattern of work that Manet was to use throughout much of his life (Bareau 1986). It seems that Manet started the process with a photograph of the painting, which he then traced and used as the basis for both the watercolor and the subsequent print. In the case of the Reves "Spanish Singer," these works describe a slightly smaller pictorial field than does the painting, and certain details (the right shoe, the onions, the cigarette smoke, the shirtfront, and the scarf) have been adapted to the reduced scale of the format. Why did Manet use watercolor? We can speculate that he wished to translate the entire work - color and all - to a small scale before translating again into the black and white medium of etching. Most of Manet's watercolors after paintings have the characteristics of miniature paintings, and collectively they tend to be quite faithful to the original except in tonality. Evidently because of the reduction in scale, Manet generally suffused the smaller versions with greater light and space, allowing them to operate independently of the paintings to which they relate. In "The Spanish Singer," the background is both lighter and, of course, more transparent than in the oil version, and the floor recedes more dramatically. For all its brio and life, "The Spanish Singer" has many of the oddities that mark Manet's mature style. The pose of the singer is inexplicably unstable, as if he is tapping his foot while playing and singing. His mouth is also ambiguously painted in both the oil and watercolor versions, making his status as a singer questionable. Many Manet scholars have searched in the art of Goya, Murillo, and Velásquez for sources, while others have concentrated on French influences in the painting of Greuze and Courbet. Yet, as always, Manet eludes his scholarly hunters by combining elements of many sources, heightening some and disguising others. He was also resolute in making his "Spanish" singer French. In fact, early commentators identified the singer's jacket as coming from Marseilles, and his pants must be from Montmartre! "Impressionist Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture from the Wendy and Emery Reves Collection," page 27