MANET’S RELIGIOUS SUBJECTS
Modern French painting, particularly following the Realist revolution of the 1850’s, was profoundly secular in character. Few avant-garde artists, in the last half of the nineteenth century, received important religious commissions, and the vast majority of paintings from the period 1850-90 that we admire today represent either landscapes or contemporary urban life. For this reason, one confronts with surprise the two great religious paintings by Edouard Manet, The Dead Christ with the Angels (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), which was exhibited in the Salon of 1864; and the Art Institute’s Mocking of Christ, accepted for the Salon of 1860, along with the scandalous Olympia (Musee d’Orsay, Paris). Why did Manet, an urbane and seemingly secular artist, attempt to paint two immense canvases of Christ? This question is as difficult for us to answer today as it was for Manet’s contemporaries.
The paintings were mostly reviled by the critics for the vulgar, lower-class people the artist chose as models, and for his apparent refusal to idealize them in any way. Critic Theophile Gautier decried that "the artist seems to have taken pleasure in bringing together ignoble, low, and horrible types… and others were even more scathing. Subsequent historians and critics have found The Mocking of Christ at once unsuccessful and unresolved, and neither it nor the Metropolitan’s painting was included in the first major Manet retrospective of 1884, although they were each readily available to its organizers. Manet, the modern artist, has never been easily integrated with Manet, the Christian. Like most Frenchmen of the nineteenth century, Manet was raised a Catholic, and his early life was organized around the central rituals of the church. However, unlike many of his well-educated contemporaries, particularly artists and writers, Manet maintained close ties to the church throughout his life. This does not mean that he was a pious, conservative Catholic — such an idea would be antithetical to everything else we know about Manet. Yet, he had more than a casual familiarity with the progressive wing of the Catholic Church in France and was a lifelong personal friend of several important clerics. One review of the Salon of 1864 connected The Dead Christ with the Angels with the infamous French theologian Joseph Ernest Renan, whose first volume of The Life of Jesus appeared in 1863, the year Manet began this first great religious painting. The following year, 1864, saw the publication of the second volume and Manet’s painting of The Mocking of Christ, completed in 1860. The close connections between Renan’s best-selling biography of Jesus and Manet’s paintings have yet to be explored closely. They are, however, undeniable and crucial. Based largely on primary documents, Renan’s work was less a retelling of the biblical story of Christ than the recreation, through texts, of his actual life. In other words, Christ became man in Renan’s book, which was intentionally a biography rather than a hagiography.
Following Renans lead, Manet borrowed elements from earlier representations of the life of Christ, yet he subjected them to the same radical transformation that he used when adapting other sources, for instance Titian’s Venus of Urbino of 1538 (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence), to his Olympia. Where Titian’s courtesan is a goddess, Manet’s goddess is a courtesan. And, analogously, where Titian's Christ Crowned with Thorns of 1548 (Alte Pinakothek, Munich) is God, Manet’s Christ is man. His ruddy flesh and sheer ordinariness astounded contemporary viewers. The almost shocking frontality by which Manet presented his Christ is unceasing in its insistence that we confront his humanity. The artist’s bold reduction of the body to essential planes and his virtual elimination of transitional tones in defining these volumes create a palpable, immediate presence whose physicality is undeniable. As befits the seriousness of its subject, the painting is a veritable symphony of grays and browns, given life by Manet’s addition of an occasional bright orange. Each texture, the skin of Christ’s head and hands, the fur worn by one of the torturers, the calluses on their feet, the reeds, leather straps, and rough cloth — all are painted with a literalness and materiality that transcend even the example of Gustave Courbet, with whose profoundly secular realism Manet was grappling in this painting.
Manet’s original title for the painting was Jesus Insulted by the Soldiers. Clearly, Manet did not intend to portray the soldiers’ behavior in the way this title implies. (In fact, the oddly ambivalent actions of these figures was noted by the painting’s critics.) Far from being the torturers whose grotesque faces and violent gestures populate the history of art, these are men who seem almost stunned in the presence of Christ. The torturer with the rod kneels in homage more than he readies himself for his cruel task; the fur-clad figure at the right holds Christ’s cloak as if it were a royal robe. In The Mocking of Christ, Manet seems to have suspended time at the moment before the insults occurred, when Christ, in all his humanity, is revealed to us by his eventual torturer.
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