De Profundis


A Bar at the Folies-Bergére is a painting that has occupied me for many days.  Édouard Manet’s work is wonderful, but there is something more, for me, in his work that I am drawn to.  The other day as I was re-stacking some books, there, as though waiting for me, were three books on Manet and his work. My hand brushed up against them as I put the other uninteresting books away. Well, how could I resist? Why should I? I asked myself. Don’t answer that! just grab the books and run. I can’t swear that I did not skip back to my desk, blithely ignoring the piles of work I was suppose to be doing as I sat down with Édourad.

3Let me step back a moment into Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe. I love it. It references Fête Champêtre by Giorgione (or maybe Titian), but it has the opposite effect on me. As a woman, I find this Manet painting particularly affecting. There on the grass is a person of extraordinary poise. One gets the feeling that she is perhaps the smartest one of the group and without artifice, or disguise, or clothing for that matter, she is presented as being completely in command of herself. Unlike the Muses of Fête Champêtre, she is not the object of the painting, rather her visage, her eyes, her calm certainty is the subject. She is not the equal of the men- they are her’s. She is what I would aspire to: her ability to have the courage of her own nudity*.

Unfortunately, what I feel more of an affinity to is the girl standing at the bar in A Bar at the Folies-Bergére. She is competent and patient, but I look at her and – I know that look; and it’s not just because I have served my share of penance in the restaurant business.  The sparkle and noise that surrounds her is empty of meaning. She is searching for some understanding, for someone to see her, but is resigned to be one more object at the counter crowded out with pretty bottles of champagne, flowers and (my favorite detail) a bowl of oranges. There is a life inside of her and how Manet turns her seeming ennui into a kind of quiet despair is brilliant.

Manet was an interesting man living in an extraordinarily vibrant time. He was the sort of man men like Émile Zola passionately defended, and was friends with a lot of brilliant people, men and women, including Charles Baudelaire. I love his poem Obsession, and I place it here with A Bar at the Folies-Bergére because it speaks to what lies beneath but is not hidden, never completely hidden- Not when we simply look, and see, and then recognize each other. It’s this look that Manet captures, a feeling that says – Sometimes I am afraid to move lest I provoke an eruption.


Great woods, you frighten me like the cathedrals;
you howl like organs; in our curs’d hearts lie
chapels of endless grief where old râles rattle,
echoing your De Profundis a reply.

Ocean, I hate your tossing and your tumults,
my spirit finds them all again in me;
I hear in the monstrous laughter of the sea
the bitter laugh of the vanquished,with sobs and insults.

O night, how you please me without stars
whose light speaks only in the banal tongue!
I see the black, the empty, and the bare!

But the shadows are themselves a canvas where
from my eyes a thousand ghosts are flung,
of vanished beings with familiar stares.

-Baudelaire, translated from French by C.F. MacIntyre

*What is my great artistic credo? Listen to your heart, and don’t be afraid of giving off unexpected sounds. Have the courage of your own nudity. – Alexander King presents Peter Altenberg’s Evocations of Love


25 responses to “De Profundis

  1. Oh lovely! Yes, the men in Le Dejeuner actually look a bit silly with their clothes on. So amazing.

  2. I have a prfound regard for Manet. Wonderful observations on Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe. I’ve always been struck by her unflinching regard of the viewer; commanding, challenging, devoid of the sense of vulnerability we are conditioned to believe must accompany nudity. It is remarkable.

    • Yes, her “unflinching regard.” It is really quite an amazing painting on many levels. Lately I am quite stuck on Manet. Can’t shake him, have no real reason to anyway, so I just run away with it…

  3. It has been interesting for me and I enjoyed the way you talked about it very much. Thank you. 🙂

  4. this subject is inviting; it’s like I have enter the grounds of a magnificent pool; and i circle about trying to take in the lay of the land; wanting to put off jumping in because I know too well it is the moment before that matters; or not: here I go- plunge

  5. Manet completed and exhibited “The Luncheon on the Grass (Le déjeuner sur l’herbe)” in 1863 as an in-your-face act of defiance to France’s social mores. Basically, he created a fine art nude with some of the intent of a hardcore pornographer without making harcore porn.

    We know that the face of the nude is that of a model named Victorine Meurent, but the body is a coposite of Meurent’s and Manet’s wife Suzanne Leenhoff’s bodies. I wonder, who had what specific part of the female anatomy that appealed most to him to be added to the illustrated figure.

    The piece is neither truly realistic nor impressionistic. It’s quite literally, a clever but still brute force fist in the scrutinizing eye of conformity. I wouldn’t call myself a rebel, I think propriety and sensetivity has their places, but I like the premise and recognize that propriety can lead to snobbery that I really can’t stand.

    • You’re right, it’s not as if this is the first painting to depict a nude woman- or a nude woman amongst clothed men (the Giorgione for one), so it is especially insulting that the French Salon rejected it as obscene.
      I don’t read it as pornographic. I think Manet was saying something much more interesting- yes about social norms, but also about individual…self-actualization. The painting has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with the sexes.

      • Absolutely. In the most simple consideration of it’s literal elements, it definitely could be fine art erotica except that the intent is not there for it, and that’s crucial. This is not at all about libido or anything along that line. It is strictly a social protest and a challenge.

        The challenge is akin to that of a obscene-minded Larry Flint but because the subject matter and intent of the painting has nothing to do with sexual voyerism, it is neither softcore nor hardcore. It is at least a fine art nude.

        That’s why it is a well-respected Manet, even though it is an unfinished painting that doesn’t even depict any sort of story.

        Great, great post. Enjoyed it.

  6. I wonder what is happening in the background? If you include the second woman, then you have two couples, rather than a naked woman with two men, which totally changes the narrative.

    • Yes, it could, but I think there is that strong referencing of Fete Champetre and it also visually creates that lovely triangular shape that was so ingrained in artists of that time. But, yes…I think it would make her nudity more naked if she was alone…the other woman provides a level of safety…

  7. Wonderful post!

    I once knew an art historian who looked uncannily like the subject of Folies-Bergére.

  8. Many painters, in and ’round this place-time, are known to have spent much time in the company of prostitutes and very little time with wives and children. The prior as models, and as companions, but also as cohorts in their informal social scenes. Adds some insight, perhaps, upon the inclusion of a nude woman within the proximal circle where the men are engrossed in conversation. Meanwhile, the less emphasized but more piously poised woman is separated, not presented and not engaged.

    • Yes, that would be the narrative I saw if it weren’t for her uncanny expression…she is no one’s inferior or object- at least as I see her

      • Ms. Qudaparcs

        Why not both views comprising the narrative? I ask sincerely (looks rather bluntly put here instead ;)…

        I have imagined, during my forays in visual art history, that there were many reasons prostitutes enjoyed these kinds of privileges (among men). I’m not sure it’s fair of us to assume much of their character, in view of either the past or the present, if you get my meaning… ? Perhaps even moreso, actually, in times and places where marriage was a kind of survival guarantee. Prostitution then, all the more, a means to an end. And, I suspect, not without a sense of freedom and independence, at least from time to time, that most married women would not have tasted.

        Conjecture… for my part…. but I do suspect there’d be someth’n to it…

      • oh I agree. I think there was, and can sympathize with, an appeal of the choices beyond marriage which were limited to two: nunnery or whorehouse- at least there is freedom in it. The fact that those were the only options for so long throughout history is the true crime…

      • Ms. Qudaparcs

        Yes. And even still relegated to the underworld, in so-called ‘progressive’ societies, where their lives are additionally at risk. ‘Tis another kind of ‘state of exception’…

        Re: The woman in the painting… If we recall the long history of women as ‘muses’, especially waxed poetic about during various Renaissances, and add what insight we have upon the relationship with prostitutes…. It’s not far-fetched, in my view, to understand how objectification and veneration intermingle meanwhile making an alternative sociopolitical statement (to that which a Church prescribes/enforces in a culture, for eg).

        Very many radicals (activists / revolutionaries) have been as sexist, by contemporary standards, as progressive in their worldviews for example….

  9. More directly, I suppose, I am meditating upon the fact of her nudity and the message therein… It is a pointed, purposed, choice / decision the painter has made. I might have said so (sorry ’bout that) but still finishing up m’first cup ‘o joe this morn 🙂

    • I think you are right. The thing that I wonder about is whether or not that was really the painter’s intent from the get go- or did the model (one he used many times) inform the outcome. You are really encouraging my proclivity to ponder meta theories here…we could go on and on about sexism, and how “enlightened” men dealt with it or just went with it,- on the right side of history as it were…and look a little further down the line of history to ponder the “femme fatale” reactionary bit coming into play.
      What I love about Manet is his acknowledgement of the sensual, but his apparent high regard for women in a new, more egalitarian way. This painting makes me think that the women of his age were asserting themselves with confidence- and I am in awe of it.

  10. Totally (on all counts).

    I did some research on women artist’s in the West and Europe, for a paper on omissions in the art history of Renaissances… Women were not everywhere nor so heterogeneously subjugated. Depends upon the class, region, and time-frame. We’ve the impression of forward-only cultural movement moreso due to the propaganda of ‘progress’, that revved and hasn’t yet let up, since the British Industrial Revolution… Lots of myths now dispelled, in this regard, pertaining to health and life-spans et al too….


    yup. meta. 🙂

    • Oh – but this isn’t to say that Manet didn’t bring many a someth’ns new/fresh into the fold, for his own place-time. I agree with your sentiment surrounding the woman’s expression and have also found myself curious about his awareness / the model’s attitude…

      I meant only to comment upon the coming and going of women’s ‘liberations’ in the Occidental past, that aren’t very well documented, due to the place-time attitudes within which decisive histories were written up, printed, and then disseminated. Art and artists have a way of documenting culture, un/consciously or ideologically, that is kinda special me thinks….

      • Yes, that is exactly it- coming and going…and all the in betweens we know nothing of, which is precisely why your point about the artist’s way of capturing (consciously or not) the going culture is fascinating and one of the things I love about viewing art. Of course the other thing is the art itself. I was just at a gallery today looking at another Manet and am just about ready to fall down at his feet- wonderful painter!

      • Ms. Qudaparcs

        You were visiting some of the originals, I imagine, yeah? Yup. Pretty darn impressive and altogether enjoyable!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s