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But what a scourge to society is a realist painter! To him nothing is sacred! Manet tramples underfoot the most sacred ties. TheArtist's Parents must have more than once cursed the day when a brush was placed in the hands of this merciless portraitist.—Léon Lagrange in La Gazette des Beaux-Arts, Paris1(p9)
On April 12, 1866, at his home at 7 rue Turgot, Jules Holtzapfel committed suicide, shooting himself in the head. In his published suicide note, the Austrian painter wrote: “The members of the [Salon] jury have rejected me. I therefore have no talent. . . . I must die!”2(pp186-187)For artists in France, their professional lives depended on the annual Salon, a juried, government-sponsored art exhibition. The inclusion of a painting provided an official stamp of approval and facilitated sales and commissions; exclusion from the Salon was professional death. With no explanation or reason, a red R (“rejected”) was stamped on the back of canvases not chosen. Holtzapfel had exhibited in every Salon for the previous decade and could not bear this humiliation.
Édouard Manet (1832-1883), French. Le Suicide, c 1877-1881. Oil on canvas, 38 × 46 cm. Foundation E. G. Buehrle Collection, Zurich, Switzerland. Photo credit: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, New York, New York.
The following week, on April 19, writer and critic Émile Zola (1840-1902) condemned the Salon art jury system. He reported on the suicide in the newspaper L’Evénement(The Event), noting that when Holtzapfel was found, the gun had not dropped from his hand. When Édouard Manet (1832-1883) painted Le Suicidemore than a decade later (1877), art historians2proposed that in doing so he might have memorialized Holtzapfel's death and the devastating effects that the Salon jury system had on artists. Manet provided no explanation; he simply and realistically represented an anonymous suicide. In other paintings Manet emphasized themes of loneliness in modern mankind and the threat of death.3Earlier in his career, Manet had personal experience with suicide when, in 1859 or 1860, he found his young assistant Alexandre hanged in his studio.
Manet was profoundly dissatisfied with the Paris Salon, which valued grand historical themes and well-known classical subjects. The Salon often rejected his work and he was frequently criticized for his realism. After rejections by the Salon in 1857 and 1859, 2 of his paintings were accepted in 1861, Portrait of M and Mme Auguste Manet(Figure) and The Spanish Singer. Art critic Léon Lagrange castigated the former, a realistic portrayal of his parents (epigraph), as a “scourge to society.”1(p9)Yet the painting did meet with his parents' approval. Manet continued to paint realistically despite this criticism.
Édouard Manet (1832-1883), French. Portrait of M and Mme Auguste Manet, 1860. Oil on canvas, 111.5 × 91 cm. Museé d’Orsay, Paris, France (http://www.musee-orsay.fr/en/collections). Photo credit: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, New York.
In its realistic portrayal of suicide, Manet's Le Suicidebroke the artistic mold. Earlier images of suicide were heroic, showing the suicides of classic figures from antiquity, such as Ajax, Lucretia,4Dido, Seneca, or Socrates, or tragic figures, such as Ophelia5from Hamlet. Instead Manet presents the viewer with a fashionable man in evening dress with a bullet wound in his right upper abdomen. He has fallen onto his bed after shooting himself; the gun hangs loosely in his right hand, suggesting that Manet has captured the exact moment of his demise. There is a pool of blood next to his right foot. His mouth is twisted as though he gasped for air before dying. His posture and position, the blood, the gun in his hand, and the brush strokes that created this image give the viewer a striking sense of immediacy. A monk looks down onto the dead man from a painting on the wall behind the bed.3The monk may be another link to Holtzapfel, who was known for his paintings of medieval scenes.2Manet was a regular reader of Zola's writings in L’Evénement, so he was likely familiar with Zola’s story about the suicide. It is not known what Manet's mental state was when he painted Le Suicide. During the late 1870s, Manet was affected by symptoms of tertiary syphilis, with problems in balance, probably tabes dorsalis.
French sociologist Émile Durkheim used statistical methods to document how urbanization and alienation may result in suicide. In 1897, he described egoistic, altruistic, and anomic forms.6Durkheim unfortunately minimized psychiatric explanations of mental illness as a cause of suicide.7His sociological model is applicable to Holtzapfel, who had elements of both egotistical (sense of failure) and anomic (focused on self-importance) forms.
In criticizing Manet for his realism, Lagrange was misguided. Manet's father, Auguste Manet, was a prominent jurist who had a stroke, probably as a complication of tertiary syphilis, in 1857. He was disabled and unable to speak coherently afterwards, although he regained the ability to walk. Manet's mother wrote movingly of her suffering after her husband's disability. In his Portrait of M and Mme Auguste Manet(Figure), Édouard Manet carefully positioned his father in the painting so as to disguise his paralysis (clenched right fist, facial expression, and downcast eyes) and present him in a dignified pose with his wife looking on with appropriate concern. Thus Manet demonstrated that a realistic portrayal could be humane and emotionally moving. When painting his parents, Manet was not a merciless portraitist, but a compassionate one.
Harris JC. Le Suicide. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2008;65(7):744. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.65.7.744
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