Performers, and performance, evidently fascinated the French Impressionist artist Edouard Manet (1832-1883). His art includes paintings of Spanish ballet dancers, of bullfighters, circus scenes, musicians. It has also been pointed out how much he enjoyed the masquerade of fancy dress. One book about him devotes a chapter to his "costume pieces."
As a painter, Manet was himself something of a deft performer. Some of his contemporaries saw this as a kind of shallow brilliance. But, as with the Spanish 17th-century court painter Velzquez, whom he admired so much, Manet's dexterous economy with the brush, his very directness, belied enigmatic undercurrents running deep in his art.
Manet's paintings still intrigue and puzzle us more than a century after his death. He was nothing like as obvious as he sometimes seems at a glance.
Manet was determined to paint contemporary subjects. His interest in popular culture made him a kind of "pop artist" of his time, though it did not make him very popular with the academic establishment of the Parisian art world. In spite of his modernity, Manet was persistently inspired by old- master art. "The Tragic Actor" is unmistakably a tribute to Velzquez.
It is actually a portrait of an actor named Philibert Rouvire playing the Shakespearean tragic antihero, Hamlet. It is a portrait of a portrayal. This actor was also a painter. He was a friend of the painter Delacroix. Delacroix made lithographs of Hamlet, and Rouvire, when he played the part, donned a costume and makeup much influenced by Delacroix's Romantic vision.
So there is a complex layering of art and theater in Manet's striking painting. It is an image that cannot be taken at face value any more than an actor playing a part can be. Manet effectively investigates the degrees of artifice, illusion, and realism that are the stuff, he appears to indicate, of painting as well as theater.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society