Installation reunites Édouard Manet's three Philosopher paintings

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Installation reunites Édouard Manet's three Philosopher paintings
Édouard Manet (French, 1832–1883), Beggar with a Duffle Coat (Philosopher), 1865/67. Oil on canvas, 73-7/8 × 43-1/4 in. (187.7 × 109.9 cm) The Art Institute of Chicago, A. A. Munger Collection.

PASADENA, CA.- The Norton Simon Museum announces a special installation of Édouard Manet’s three Philosopher paintings: Beggar with Oysters (Philosopher) and Beggar with a Duffle Coat (Philosopher), both dated 1865/67 and on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Ragpicker, from c. 1865-1870, one of the highlights of the Norton Simon collections. Shown together for the first time in fifty-five years, these richly resonant works reveal Manet at his most provocative, harnessing the authority of an established style to convey dignity on a class of people overlooked by French society.

Manet’s Philosophers

In 1865, Édouard Manet (1832–1883) traveled to Spain to “see all those beautiful things and seek the counsel of maestro Velázquez,” as he wrote to a friend, later declaring “the philosophers of Velázquez” to be “astounding pieces” that were “alone worth the journey.” Indeed, Diego Velázquez’s Aesop and Menippus, both c. 1638, depict the ancient Greek storyteller and satirist as contemporary Spanish beggars, each man rendered in shabby clothes but with enough self-possession to confidently meet the viewer’s gaze. These paintings provided a model for the young Manet, who sought to relate art historical tradition to contemporary life.

Shortly before and after his trip to Spain, Manet painted three of his own “philosophers,” Beggar with Oysters (Philosopher), Beggar with a Duffle Coat (Philosopher), and the Ragpicker, which, along with an earlier painting of an absinthe drinker, were loosely grouped as a series when he sold them to his dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, in 1872. The works depict disheveled, down-and-out male figures, all of whom would have been legible urban types to viewers of the mid-19th century. Portraying the men at nearly life size against an indecipherable dark background, Manet borrowed Velázquez’s format and updated it to offer a modern equivalent.

The association between poverty and philosophy was already a well-established theme in the art and literature of Velázquez’s day, but it had renewed relevance in 19th-century Paris. Beggars and ragpickers had become increasingly romanticized between the 1840s and 1860s as urban development seemed to threaten their existence altogether. Ragpickers sifted through the detritus of daily life—primarily rags, which they sold to paper manufacturers—as well as kitchen scraps, soap and other cast-offs that were left out for trash collectors. Sorting garbage might sound like work for the truly destitute, but these scavengers were regulated, semiprofessional recyclers of city waste, and they were seen as a discrete social type, one that was free from the restrictions and inhibitions of a traditional bourgeois lifestyle.

Recent scholarship has suggested that Manet, who suffered from his own sense of alienation and rejection from established art circles, may have identified with his embattled subjects. Both artist and “philosopher-ragpicker” could be seen as bohemians who operated on the margins and earned a living by making use of the stuff of everyday life.

This installation is the result of a masterpiece exchange program between the Art Institute of Chicago and the Norton Simon Museum, and marks the first time Manet’s three philosophers have been shown together since the artist’s major retrospective at the Art Institute in 1966-7. This will also be the first time Beggar with Oysters (Philosopher) and Beggar with a Duffle Coat (Philosopher) are on view in California. The Chicago paintings will be installed together with The Ragpicker in the Museum’s permanent collection galleries, near the two other Manet works from the Norton Simon collections: an unfinished portrait of the artist’s wife, Madame Manet (1874–76), and the highly accomplished Still Life with Fish and Shrimp (1864). The installation is organized by Chief Curator Emily Talbot, and is on view in the Museum’s 19th-century art wing from November 19, 2021 through February 28, 2022. A series of related programs will be offered.

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