“I render, as simply as can be, the things I see.”
“My dear friend,” wrote the artist Édouard Manet to the poet Stéphane Mallarmé in 1874, “Thanks. If I had a few supporters like you, I wouldn’t give a damn about the jury.” The jury to which Manet refers was responsible for deciding the artworks that would, and would not, be selected for the Paris Salon, the most prestigious art exhibition in France. Recently, this jury had rejected two of the four paintings submitted to the Salon by Manet. In response, Mallarmé wrote a passionate defense of his friend, whom he described as a “new master, who annually shows his developing talent in a spirit of lofty thought and misunderstood wisdom.”
Manet and Mallarmé would soon embark on a joint project: Le Corbeau, a bilingual, illustrated edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven. Mallarmé translated Poe’s famous poem from English into French (a raven can be spotted in Paul Gauguin’s Portrait of Stéphane Mallarmé) while Manet designed the book’s frontispiece (the illustration opposite its title page and its ex-libris (the label used to identify the book’s owner), as well as four full-page prints. In Manet’s hands, Poe’s raven is an enigmatic creature flitting in and out of view. The bird sits in profile on the frontispiece and takes flight on the ex-libris, but is absent in the first print. Then, it swoops into an open window in the second print and lands on a sculpted bust in the third print, only to abandon the scene in the fourth print. Raven or no raven, each lithograph evokes the beady-eyed, sharp-beaked bird. Whether depicting a sooty city skyline or a shadowy apartment interior, Manet alludes to the raven’s lustrous plumage through his generous use of deep, dark ink. A similarly stark color scheme can be found in his other prints, many of which—like Le Corbeau—respond to works of art and literature. As images and texts circulated with greater ease in the 19th century, Manet’s prints explored a changing media environment while questioning conventional notions about copies and originals.
Prior to Le Corbeau, Manet had made his name in Paris with daring paintings inspired in equal measure by modern life and historical artworks. In 1863, the artist shocked the city’s exhibition-going public with Luncheon on the Grass; he did so again in 1864 with The Dead Christ with Angels and in 1865 with Olympia. For his early viewers, it was not only what Manet painted—a party of picnickers, one of them naked; an ashen Christ; a brazen sex worker and her attentive maid—but how that was startling. Stripped-down compositions, limited shading, broad brushstrokes, bold coloring: all were departures from traditional Salon painting. “It appears that I am the first to praise Manet without reservation,” wrote the novelist and critic Émile Zola in 1866. “You know what effect Manet’s canvases produce at the Salon. They break open the wall, quite simply.”
By the early 1880s, Manet was suffering from the illness that would result in his death at the age of 51. It was during these years that he completed Two Roses along with a number of other small flower paintings. Though sometimes understood as slight due to their size and subject matter, these works pulse with thought and feeling. In Two Roses, a pair of delicately hued flowers—one a crimson-flecked cream, the other a faint, blue-streaked lilac—lie on a gray surface. The arrangement may be spare, but not Manet’s treatment of it. “What is shadow and what is plant matter?” the scholar Bridget Alsdorf has asked of the painting. “What is paint and what is life? Which is primary for the artist? Often praised as ‘simple,’ Manet’s flowers are anything but.” From the curling folds of the blooms to their tangled stems, leaves, and shadows, Two Roses rewards the kind of close, careful looking lavished on Manet by his most attentive observers, among them Claude Monet and Paul Gauguin in the 19th century and Pablo Picasso, Romare Bearden, and Mickalene Thomas in the 20th and 21st.
Note: Opening quote is from Wrigley, Richard. Edouard Manet (London: Scala Books, 1992), 34.
Annemarie Iker, independent scholar, 2022