The Fifer

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Edouard Manet, The Fifer, 1866

A whopping 161 x 97 cm in size, just to portray an ordinary boy, presumably of the military marching band, playing a fife—in his early work The Fifer, Manet here takes a truly modern, unconventional stand that was not particularly appreciated by his contemporaries. One would find it puzzling about what had prompted Manet to pay such close attention to a nameless boy and to paint this sizeable work against the popular taste without seeing Velasquez’s earlier work Pablo de Valladolid. Following a trip to Spain, Manet found himself deeply interested in the style of Spanish painters. Similar to Velasquez’s Pablo de Valladolid, Manet places the boy in a plain, stark setting, surrounded only by the thin air. He employs the impasto technique—the solid black jacket, the thick red pants with a black contour line, and a little shadow—to create a flatness that was unprecedented to French critics. Further more, devoting the entire canvas to a working class boy upset the established “hierarchy of representation.”  The painting was rejected by the Salon of 1866 despite Zola’s strong support. Zola, in his L’Evenement, defended that he sensed a “truly modern feeling” in the work of this early impressionist giant.

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