The Degas-Manet Friendship: Crusty Comrades and Suave Gentlemen

DEGAS was partial, in his paintings, to the ``cutoff.'' His dancers on stage or in the wings and his jockeys on horseback at the races often find themselves - as in a snapshot - intercepted by the frame. In fact, this canny artist used the cutoff as a device to suggest spontaneity and movement. All the same, the painting of a husband and wife shown here, lent from Japan to the recent major exhibition of Degas' work in Paris, Ottawa, and New York, was somewhat surprising. It has a startling cutoff that was not part of Degas' intention at all. Even he would never have gone so far as to slice off the front half of one of the figures in a double portrait. That severe act was performed by the elegant, languid man sprawling on the sofa.

According to Degas, as reported in a conversation with Ambroise Vollard at the turn of the century, this man - the painter Edouard Manet - ``thought that something about Mme. Manet wasn't right'' in the picture and painted over it.

When, visiting Manet's house, Degas saw what his friend had done, he was so shocked that (as he told Vollard): ``I left without saying goodbye, taking my picture with me. When I got home, I took down a little still life he had given me. `Monsieur,' I wrote, `I am returning your Plums.'''

The two artists - Degas was the younger by 2 years - did not, however, keep up their quarrel, and later resumed their friendship. But Degas' intention to restore his portrait of the piano-playing Madame Manet was never fulfilled. In one of Vollard's versions of the story, this was partly because Degas simply kept putting it off and partly because he came to suspect that Manet's literally slashing criticism of that part of the picture may, after all, have been right.

The relationship of the two artists was one between men of similar class and interests. Robert L. Herbert in his book on Impressionism analyzes how they both posed as fl^aneurs - as detached, gentlemanly observers of modern urban life in Paris. (Fl^aneur is from the French verb fl^aner, to stroll.) The fl^aneur, rather aristocratic and British in bearing, promenaded on the boulevards, simultaneously observed and observing. Irony, wit, and subtlety were part of his fashionable manner. ``Manet,'' writes Herbert, ``was a notable example of the fl^aneur. In his dress, his exquisite manners, his savoir-faire, and his devotion to shocking the bourgeoisie, he epitomized this urban species.

``Degas was so much the lone wolf that he deviated from the type, but he shared many of the fl^aneur's qualities and represented him often in his paintings.'' Indeed he represented the fl^aneur Manet a number of times: There are drawings, for example, as well as this much-printed etching, of the dapper, dandified man, so apparently unlike an ``artist'' in appearance, seated in Degas' studio, just come in from the street.

There is a drawing of him at the races, standing elegantly as he watches the horses (which was a preoccupation of the fl^aneurs of the day no less than watching the dancers backstage at the Op'era).

Manet, on the other hand, does not seem to have portrayed Degas at all - which is itself perhaps a comment on the nature of their relationship - unless, as one tradition has it, Degas is depicted bottom right in one of Manet's horse-racing pictures, ``Les courses au bois de Boulogne.'' All that is visible of the figure in question is top hat and shoulders, seen from behind: not much of a portrait. Perhaps it is just a nice idea that Manet thought to acknowledge his debt to Degas' paintings of the racetrack by including him there.

The friendship between the men was spiced with a certain amount of mockery and irony - critical remarks made to others as well as face to face. Nevertheless, they were equally capable of praising each other quite extravagantly. Degas disapproved of Manet's determination to succeed as a painter by exhibiting his work in the conventional, academic context of the Paris Salon. Manet even hoped to achieve the honors this institution doled out to its favorites - though he never painted in a manner calculated to bring him such favor.

Degas, on the other hand, was scornful of recognition and prizes and exhibited independently with the other Impressionists. On one occasion Degas caustically remarked to Manet, who had still not been decorated as he wished, ``After all, what are you complaining about? You're as famous as Garibaldi.'' The recent biographer of Degas, Roy McMullen, says of that remark: ``... in a very unwelcome sense the sally was true, for Manet was constantly the butt of caricaturists....''

The two artists would indulge in such sallies of teasing at the Caf'e Guerbois, and on another occasion Manet, as McMullen describes it, ``temporarily disarmed his adversary by suddenly saying, with obvious sincerity, `We have all, in our minds, awarded you the medal of honor, along with many other things even more flattering.''' And, years later, Vollard found that Degas could be very touchy if anyone presumed to criticize Manet in his presence.

Though we do not have Degas' portrait of Manet's wife, Manet himself painted her. In one painting he shows her at the piano. She was an accomplished musician. It has been theorized that Manet made this painting after he had slashed Degas' picture, to portray her as he wished. But his version is scarcely flattering, and the current critical lore, as set forth in the catalog to the mammoth Degas exhibition, is that Degas' picture was painted after Manet's, not the other way around.

This catalog dates the Degas ``c. 1868-69'' and the Manet ``c. 1867-68.'' So if this is right, it would seem that Degas painted Madame Manet playing the piano just as her husband had done. So what was it that so displeased Manet that his ``exquisite manners'' gave way so disastrously?

Degas was, as is shown in some other portraits in his earlier years, a mercilessly accurate observer of relationships between husbands and wives. He had such an acute way of capturing, with a kind of uninvolved objectivity, the character of individual sitters, that he seems inadvertently to show how unsuited to each other some married couples could be. Manet's relationship with his wife is known to have had its ups and downs, and it is possible that Degas had once more hinted too pointedly with his brush the differences of temperament between man and wife.

What remains, of course, is an extraordinary portrait of Manet himself at home. Contemporaries agreed that Degas had shown him in a typical pose - or rather lack of pose. And most writers since agree that he is looking distracted or bored, expressing little interest in his wife's music-making. People who knew Manet well reported his lack of response to music.

One critic, however, intriguingly read Manet's attitude in a different way, describing the artist as ``intoxicated by the enveloping perfume of the melody.''

Perhaps this interpretation should not be dismissed out of hand. And anyway the two interpretations may not be as mutually exclusive as they appear to be. Both boredom and intense feeling are part of the fl^aneur's makeup. Herbert writes that the poet Baudelaire gave ``memorable expression to key concerns of the fl^aneur.'' And among those concerns he lists ``the power of cool observation when supported by underlying passion.''

This describes Manet as a painter perfectly. His style seems almost careless in its ease and lack of involvement: It is ``cool observation.'' And yet there is no doubt that vigorous sensations and even passion surge under its surface. He painted musicians on quite a number of occasions, and this alone casts doubt on the reports of his indifference to music, even if it might only have been popular music. Degas shows his friend in a state of such relaxation that it almost amounts to abandon.

That, surely, is exactly how Manet would have enjoyed music.

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