There’s a pastel painting I’ve always loved – it’s Édouard Manet’s “George Moore”.
I was reminded of it today when, searching my book shelf for something else, I came across a book, Édouard Manet Pastels by John Rewald published in 1947. This book is particularly special to me as it first belonged to my grandfather Newton Brett and was then passed on to my Mum, Joanne Sibley. The thing is, it also survived the devastation of sea and sand in Hurricane Ivan. My Mum’s note when she gave it to me for Christmas a number of years ago said, “Another ‘Ivan’ escapee – almost. I am sure Dad would love to know that you are now enjoying it.” Like I said, very special!
I’ve been wanting to do another ‘Close Look’ blog and as far as I was concerned, this was a sign to do it today! It was difficult to decide which of Édouard Manet’s pastels to choose – there are so many luscious ones of women! – but in the end, I chose this one of George Moore, executed in one sitting.
Don’t you just LOVE this?! Certainly a different reaction than when it was first exhibited in 1880. According to the Metropolitan of Museum of Art’s notes, critics ridiculed it, calling it “Le Noyé repêché” (the drowned man fished out of the water).
It seems that Édouard Manet (1832-1883) didn’t start using pastels until his forties. His first appears to have been “Madame Manet on a Sofa” done in 1874 and now at the Musée d’Orsay. Most of his pastels were done in the late 1870’s and early 1880’s until his death in 1883.
Edgar Degas was of course using pastels at this time but his pastels have more the feelings of drawings – you can tell he worked with the tip of the pastel in the hatching. Manet’s pastels on the other hand have the feeling of paintings, as if they were painted with a brush in oils. And look, this one is done on canvas, which makes it look even more painterly.
By the way, the Met Museum’s notes say that George Moore liked the pastel so much he used it as the frontispiece for his book Modern Painting (1893), noting that as “a fresh-complexioned, fair-haired young man, the type most suitable to Manet’s palette, [the artist] at once asked [him] to sit.”
Now let’s have a closer look at the painting of George Moore, Irish critic and novelist.
Let’s start at the top of the head. Now, don’t tell me you didn’t think you were looking at brushstrokes. Even when I know it’s pastel, I think oil paint! Manet makes his mark and then doesn’t fuss. He paints in shapes – not a single hair is individually shown yet we know what we are looking at are strands of hair. Manet sweeps the background slightly over the outline of the head in places – especially on the right – thereby softening the edge which makes it recede (see this in the detailed image below). He makes a few smudged dashes for the eyebrows using some of the colours of the hair.
Oh. My. Gosh. The eyes!! You could write a whole blog post about just this! You can imagine Manet looking, seeing, and then making his strokes. Much of the canvas is left bare which acts as the cool area playing off the warm pastels of creams and yellows. The eyes are there but with so little to describe them. If I painted them like that, I’d be in there correcting, trying to make them as perfect as I could. But Manet doesn’t worry about that at all! What’s there is enough. Look at that reddish line for the eye on the left – that says something with so little about Moore’s state don’t you think?
Ahhh the nose. Noses can look flat or awkward but not here. With so little colour or value change and so few marks, Manet convinces us of the volume and structure of George Moore’s nose.
And now we come to the ear. When you first see the portrait you don’t notice that dashed-on red line. And then you look closely and there it is, plain as day. Manet uses the red as shadows but rather than use one of the brown pastels, he introduces this colour. It’s only seen here, possibly on the opposing side of the face, and in the shadowed part of the lips. I can see Manet spontaneously picking up the red to paint what he sees.
That mouth, pursed as if about to express some thought, some opinion, some off-hand remark. Manet uses three reds – light (the highlight), middle (the main part of the lips), and dark (the underside of the top lip and possibly part of the interior of the mouth as the lips begin to part). And look at that curved stroke that quickly defines the top of the lip. So little to say sooooo much! This so clearly shows Manet’s precise observation.
And now let’s look at the beard, that ragingly orange beard! Don’t those pastel marks look like dry oil brushstrokes?! And look at how much canvas is left bare. I’d be in a rush to cover all those light spots but they give the idea of skin or shirt below the beard and/or light glinting off it. Such bravado in capturing the scruffiness of this beard. So seemly effortless!
The cravat, a place to get lost in the details of stripes, and folds. But not Manet, oh no. He grasps the design and then slashes on the pastel in brush-like strokes of blues, greys and red. Such confidence! You can feel the silkiness of the fabric and sense the pattern.
Speaking of fabric, look at how little Manet does to define George Moore’s jacket. He first applied the black and in a barely lighter colour, added a slight sheen to the right side as well as details like buttonhole and collar edging.
This image is just to point out the ways Manet deals with the shoulder edges – hard on the right (nearer and coming towards us), soft on the left (further away from us and receding).
And did you spot the signature? It’s there but not in your face. It appears as writing on what may be the spine of a book. Appropriate considering George Moore was an author and wrote many books!
Look at the painting again. What I find amazing is that the overall feeling is one of colour, dominated by orange. And yet when you look at the piece it’s mainly blacks and greys. This shows the power of contrast – the orange defies the dominance of the neutrals and shines brightly. So brightly that that’s what we remember about the colour of the painting.
Note too the way Manet changes the value of the background – darker on the right, lighter on the left. This not only affects the way the head shows up against it (sharp contrast on the left, less so on the right) but also adds to the sense of movement in this piece. Nothing is static, not the lips, not the hair, not the eyes, and not even the background.
A quick look at the pastel painting in black and white just because you know I’m big on values! You can see how monochromatic Manet’s work is when you compare this version with the colour version above. It’s really only the face and beard that show colour.
George Moore, who was painted in oil and pastels by Manet, was quoted in John Rewald’s book pp37-38 (without sources mentioned – they didn’t seem to think this was important years ago). George Moore reported on the way Manet executed his paintings, and as Rewald says, this could apply to his pastel paintings as well as his oils:
“Strictly speaking, he had no method, painting for him was a pure instinct…there was no trick; he merely painted. He did not prepare his palette; his colour did not exist on his palette before he put it on canvas, but working under immediate dictation of his eye, he snatched the tints instinctively, without premeditation. Ah! that marvellous hand, those thick fingers holding the brush so firmly – somewhat heavily; how malleable, how obedient that most rebellious material, oil-colour, was to his touch. He did with it what he liked…”
I think that’s it!
One thing I’d like to say before ending is that, for me, this painting and my reaction to it is a reminder that it is possible for a portrait to reach beyond time and place by virtue of its own energy, its own marks of colour, its own design. Here’s a portrait with a freshness and spontaneity of expression that goes beyond the mere representation of George Moore. It speaks more about an artist’s vision, and attracts us to it, decades later, despite knowing little about or having much interest in the subject.
I’d LOVE to hear from you. Did you learn anything from looking more closely at Manet’s portrait of George Moore?
Until next time,
And in case you’re interested, it is available via Amazon. More a collectors item than anything because all images except first one (which happens to be “George Moore”) are in black and white. The text is interesting but some info may be dated.