The Spanish Singer

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Edouard Manet, The Spanish Singer, 1860

The Spanish Singer was Manet’s first widely accepted work. Exhibited in the Salon in 1861, it represented a major step forward for Manet, who would until his untimely death at the hands of syphilis and/or gangrene, remain obsessed with the Salon. For a man who lived to push the boundaries of what was acceptable to depict as art, he was quite obsessed with obtaining pats on the back from the establishment. This painting, however, had little of the incendiary potential exhibited by his later, more famous works such as Déjeuner sur l’Herbe or Olympia. Instead of putting naked ladies in revolutionary new places like fields or couches, this painting depicted only a heavily-inebriated young Spanish crooner strumming on his guitar. When he paints this, Manet is only 27 or 28. Although some of his distinctive style makes itself visible in this painting—his heavy use of black is quite exaggerated here—his sketch-like painting style and heavy use of black outline have yet to reach maturity in this early work. However, a hint of the playful subversion in which Manet so loved to engage appears here—the discarded butt of some sort of smoking material and open wine jug lie on the floor in front of him to show us that this young singer has been enjoying himself as he cranks out music for the children to dance to. 

His crappy shoes and ragged shirt belie his less-than-ideal social status. His guitar, on the other hand, is top notch. This painting also reveals the heavy influence of Velasquez that weighed on Manet’s distinctive style early in his career after his visit to Spain. The way Manet forms his lines and particularly the way he draws the singer’s face obviously shows good old Diego’s influence on young Edouard. 

I don’t think this painting is by any means a masterpiece. However, it is a good early example of Manet’s technical mastery of painting, and it helps to show why Manet was the first artist to successfully break the mold in the stuffy aristocratic art world of the mid-19th century.

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