Brendan Sullivan

In art, few themes and subjects cease to continue without the fuel of changing implications and meanings. However, it is natural that these artistic implications are transformed in conjunction with the style that renders them, ultimately perpetuating the cycle as well as the use of subject. The classic male nude and hero and its development throughout the modern age, relates best to this relationship of aesthetics and meaning; as its prevalence and variation point toward it being a subject studied not only continuously, but repetitively as well. French painter, Édouard Manet, was keystone in the continuity of the male figure, as his inventive compositions redefine what it represents in the modernity of his era. “Manets progressive relationship to tradition, specifically the influence of the classic male nude and hero; can be understood in examining the prints, Guerre Civile (Civil War) 1871, (Mount Holyoke College Art Museum) (Fig.1), and Le Torero Mort (The Dead Toreador) 1867, (Mount Holyoke College Art Museum) (Fig.2), as Manet takes elements from the past, but renders them differently into lifeless dead figures, ultimately giving a modern, but tragic meaning to what the classic male hero has artistically evolved into in the 19th century.

To fully comprehend Manet's contribution to art in this area, one must understand what the male nude and hero meant to early tradition, in relation to the artists that pioneered the way for future artists such as Manet. The archetype for the male figure in this day and in the past was without a doubt, Michelangelo’s “David”, which represented the perfection of form, both in art and figure.  With “David” acting as a prime example of the “classic” part of the male nude figure, it is easier to develop an understanding of how it progressed and changed over time, in terms of style and meaning. Such progression is apparent within many neoclassicists of the past such as David, as well as his student Jean Germain Drouais, whose Wounded Roman Soldier, 1785,Musee du Louvre, (Fig. 3), acts as an exemplary model of the male figure in connecting underlying themes between Manet and the more-recent past. Drouais’ male figure however, concentrates more on the heroic and tragic facets of the figure, in terms of composition and emotion.

The fundamental aspects of this male figure type, that Manet, and Drouais seem to acknowledge is the fact that they are all lifeless, dead, or dying figures. In this alone, there are certain generalized connotations surrounding death and dying. These connotations, evident within Wounded Roman Soldier, 1785 (Fig. 3) are tragic, helpless yet strong, and willing. The duality of opposing emotions within tragic heroism is not a new concept, especially for artists within Drouais’s time, dealing more so with aspects of tradition and the style of the masters, than Monet. Yet as modernism developed in conjunction with Manet's art, this tragic realism was pushed away, substituted by methods that provoke ambiguity within the figure and the emotions surrounding it. Rather, than the conscious hero recognizing his own honorable death, full of emotional distinction.


Figure 1. Figure 2. Figure 3.
Édouard Manet, Guerre Civile (Civil War) 1871)