Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 20, 1998
Beth Archer Brombert Edouard Manet: Rebel in a Frock Coat Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. 506 pp.; 68 b/w ills. Paper $19.95 (0226075443)

It was Édouard Manet’s notoriety that caught the attention of the young writer Émile Zola in 1866 and galvanized him to write the first sustained polemic about his work. A fascination with the controversies surrounding the reception of Manet’s paintings has inspired an entire strain of writing on the artist ever since. Although some of that journalistic skirmishing animates Beth Brombert’s biography, this new account of his life does not dwell on Manet’s public persona. Objecting to the “depersonalized” Manet that has emerged in recent scholarship, Brombert argues that many of the enigmatic aspects of his art can be explained by the fact that Manet led a “double life” from the time that he was twenty years old and the family piano teacher, Suzanne Leenhoff, gave birth to a son. “In the context of this biography,” Brombert declares, “Suzanne and Léon constitute a crucial psychological factor in the development of Édouard’s personality and in the evolution of his art, both of which can be seen as a series of contradictions and camouflages” (53).

The circumstances surrounding Manet’s marriage to Suzanne almost twelve years later (in October 1863) and the paternity of the child who lived with the couple as her godson and youngest brother have been the subject of shop-talk among scholars and speculation in Manet literature for some time. Three interpretations of the fragmentary evidence are possible: 1) Manet was Léon’s father; 2) Manet’s father, Auguste, fathered the child; or 3) it is impossible to tell, given the code of silence about such topics maintained by the families, in accordance with nineteenth-century bourgeois morality. Those who would argue that it was Manet père’s transgression the family concealed stress that Léon was never legitimized, even though Édouard’s eventual marriage to Suzanne would have allowed it (Pissarro, Renoir, Monet, and Cézanne all legitimized children born out of wedlock by marrying their mothers). The elder Manet’s position on the civil court bench included jurisdiction over paternity suits, which presumably would have necessitated a cover-up. Therefore, as the eldest son, Édouard would have been called on to save the family honor by marrying the mother of his own half-brother.

Manet had already defied his father’s desire that he pursue a legal career. On the face of things, a scenario in which he conceals his own mistress and their child until his father’s death made it possible to marry her is more plausible. What is strange and not in keeping with Manet’s reputation for generosity, loyalty, and disregard for conventions—at least in artistic contexts—is his failure to recognize his natural son. The consequences were serious. Léon’s education was neglected, his wife endured the humiliation of living on decidedly unequal terms in her mother-in-law’s household, and, if Brombert’s conjectures are correct, Manet lived a guilt-ridden and duplicitous private life.

In support of her conviction that Manet was Léon’s father, though he had never formally acknowledged it because of Suzanne’s excessive concern for respectability, Brombert presents new facts as well as persuasive interpretations of established ones. Although they are scattered throughout a narrative that is structured by Manet’s painting career, often in unpredictable places, the details she has gathered about the unusual circumstances of Léon’s baptism, the precise household arrangements made for Suzanne and Léon prior to her marriage, and the reconstitution of Léon’s birth certificate lend credence to the argument. Yet it rests primarily on the stipulations in Manet’s marriage contract and will and, above all, in the telltale slip in the first published version of the funeral oration delivered by Manet’s lifelong friend Antonin Proust. Brombert reproduces this text as a prologue to her book, printed as it appeared in the biography published eight months after Manet’s death by Edmond Bazire. There Manet leaves behind “a son”; in Proust’s Souvenirs, published fourteen years later (the reminiscences on which all scholarship on Manet relies to one degree or another), the phrase becomes “a child who had for the great artist the attachment of a son” (xxii, 457-58).

More significant, however, is Brombert’s claim that what could not be said in Manet’s bourgeois social world could nonetheless be indirectly revealed in his paintings. The autobiographical subtexts and cameo appearances by family members, friends, and occasionally Manet himself in many key paintings have been widely discussed, but Brombert’s insistence that such works are “confessional” shifts the interpretive focus considerably. In fact, she believes that the frequent false starts, erasures, and alterations of his paintings emanate from the same psychological symbolism that structures Manet’s preference for masquerade, role-playing, and self-referential props. The “costume pieces” of the 1860s, in other words, are an elaborate disguise; yet at the same time their so-called narrative incoherence is a guide to the untold secrets of his family life. The legitimacy of such an interpretive framework must be assessed on a case-by-case basis. It is no great departure from the Manet scholarship to assert that the Boy with a Sword (1861) is an acknowledgment of paternity, that La pêche (1861-63) functions as a pictorial wedding announcement (in French, the title contains a pun: “a fish” and “a sin”), or even that The Luncheon [in the Studio] (1868) portrays the domestic dystopia that Manet’s family life became. To recast The Old Musician (1862) as a riddle of paternity or the Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1881-82) as a summation of the deception and false identity that characterized Manet’s own life is harder to accept. Ultimately, we are asked to accept a view of Manet that recalls contemporary debates about his artistic incompetence, but with a new twist; here, the ineptitude is psychic: “Manet may have revealed more than he wished to be understood, while mistaking what he thought would be understood” (108). In any case, readers will want to compare the explanation of personal subtexts in Manet’s work advanced by Nancy Locke (irrespective of her difference of opinion about Léon’s paternity): “Ultimately, I would like the reader to look upon my adaptation of Freud’s idea of the ‘family romance’ not as biographical reality painted faithfully but as biographical fiction painted as such.” (Nancy Locke, “Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’Herbe as a Family Romance,” in Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe. Ed. Paul Hayes Tucker. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 140).

The assumption that confidences that cannot be put into words can be portrayed in paint is especially pronounced in Brombert’s treatment of Manet’s relationship with Berthe Morisot, which sustains much of the second half of the book. Introducing Morisot as the woman who was everything that Suzanne was not, Brombert claims that she had “no rival in paint” (not even Victorine Meurent, who is given a less vivid characterization in this biography than one might expect, considering the ample research on her role in Manet’s art). From Manet’s eleven portrayals of Morisot and a speculative reading of her family’s correspondence, known to have been partially destroyed and expurgated by Morisot and her descendants, Brombert infers that theirs was an impossible infatuation and one that aggravated Morisot’s depressive nature. Her assessment of Berthe’s marriage to Édouard’s “feckless” brother Eugène differs strikingly from the one found in the most recent biography of Morisot (Anne Higonnet, Berthe Morisot. New York: Harper Collins, 1990), which is based on a reading of the same family archive. In effect, this biography’s emphasis on Manet’s relationships with women sets it apart from preceding literature on the artist, on which it relies extensively. Nina de Callias, Henriette Hauser, Méry Laurent, Ellen Andrée, Louise Valtesse, Jeanne de Marsy—"women who had made a life for themselves with their bodies and their wit[s?]" (387)—all get their due. About the youngest brother, Gustave, in contrast, or the many lawyers, journalists, and republicans in the Manet family circle, Brombert has less to say. (Nor does she grasp the political character of Nina de Callias’s salon; compare Philip Nord, The Republican Moment: Struggles for Democracy in Nineteenth-Century France. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1995).

Apparently afflicted with symptoms of syphilis in the early 1870s, Manet pursued recognition as a painter somewhat more urgently, Brombert suggests, but instead achieved mere celebrity. (She is informative about the nineteenth-century diagnosis and treatment of tertiary syphilis, which had caused Auguste Manet’s death as it would his son’s in 1883.) Manet’s portrayal of the demimonde during the last decade of his life thus is placed in a painful, compensatory, and deeply ambivalent realm of representation. Apart from its determination to prove that nothing is as it may appear to be in life or in art, then, the significance of this biography may be that it will move scholars beyond a simplistic division of nineteenth-century sociability into a “public” and a “private” life. There is the public life, the social life, and the family life, at least. And then there is the picturing of more or less or none of it at all, which is another thing indeed.

Leila Kinney
Massachusetts Institute of Technology