Katherine Olmsted

In the 19th century the artistic traditions of the previous centuries were under scrutiny as the critics and public alike had become tired of the repeated forms of the classical past via the old masters and sought a new art for the modern world. Edouard Manet believed that the grand tradition to present classical virtue and heroism as models for everyday life was no longer a viable means to represent the actuality of everyday life. Manet belived that the structure of the academic painting tradition in which you must repeat forms in order to creatively arrive at something original was still viable. Through his prints and paintings Manet still followed the academic tradition by quoting forms from the past but by disengaging them from their original contexts and attributing to them signs and symbols of the modern world he was able to make them relevant and new again. He believed that emulation was still possible because the meanings associated with these figures were no longer important once they were placed in another atmosphere and they could still be used to create an art that broke free from the banality of previous works and stand as something new for his contemporary society.

In a series of etchings of a young boy and dog “The Urchin” (figure 1) he draws off of a pervious painting done by a seventeenth century Spanish Baroque painter Murillo entitled “Boy with a Dog” (figure 2). Manet is clearly repeating the similar composition and a prop associated with Murrillo’s boy but is able to make it original to the modern world but dressing the boy in contemporary clothing and by using the living model of Leon Leenhoff. A change in costumery and through the monochromatic portable medium of an etching he shows that once the visual connections to the past are no longer represented the form can stand on its own as a platform for new associations. The modern viewer would see this image of a street urchin and recognize him as a type of person that they would see in their everyday life. The theoretical or social importance of the original painting are void and meaningless once it is outside of the parameters that give it said meaning. Murillo’s painting represents a seventeenth century boy in a seventeenth century setting but by stripping away everything that makes it seventeenth century Manet can make it modern. The fact that there is no background in Manet’s etching is indicative of the fact that without a specific background or relationships formed in associations with other figures, a form can become a blank slate and can become just another prop in itself that you can dress up and move around in various ways to inhabit different spaces in different time periods. 

The reordering of forms into situations and dress of the contemporary world he makes the viewer at once aware that they are looking at something from the past but that they were also being presented with an image of their everyday. Now instead of being ennobled by large scale classical scenes that were supposed to serve as ideal role models the viewer would now find their place in society through their social relationship to these figures. If a wealthy person were to see the image of The Urchin they would not be expected to want to emulate that personality type. It would just further reinforce their place in the social hierarchies of the modern world. 


FIgure 1. FIgure 2. FIgure 3. FIgure 4.
Edouard Manet The Urchin – Boy with a Dog (Le Gamin) 1862 Etching