If you are a woman who grew up in the 80s and 90s, as I did, you probably had one. Or if you are a Baby Boomer, you probably gifted a set to a daughter, niece, granddaughter, or someone else. If you are a man- or, heck, even just alive during that time- you may remember seeing them, or, who knows, maybe you even had one yourself. It’s all good. I’m talking about those best-friends-heart-necklaces. Remember those? You had two necklaces, each with half a heart, or half a design, so that when you brought them together they’d make the full shape. I definitely had one, although I really can’t remember whether or not I gifted the other half to any of my friends, or if I just wore it because it was trendy and gimmicky. We can do a deep psychological dive on that one later. The point, though, was obvious. You’d share the necklace and therefore proclaim your devotion to your bestie for all the world to see. You were half as great alone, but coming together in full force, you two could be unstoppable- best friends forever. That’s the thing about gift-giving. It’s one of the primary ways to solidify a relationship. But what happens when gifting goes suddenly wrong, and alters a friendship for good?
Some people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. But the stories behind those paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. And today, we are continuing our series on great rivalries in art history with two great friends whose relationship soured over a single painting. This is the story of Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas. Welcome to the ArtCurious Podcast, exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History. I'm Jennifer Dasal.
The rivalry between Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas isn’t a rivalry in the same way that the relationship between Turner and Constable was, or Raphael and Michelangelo. As we’ve discussed in previous episodes, those two battles were competitiveness writ large, angst built around envy for one another’s works and a wish to be the very top of their game, besting even their closest friends. But that wasn’t the case with Edouard and Edgar. These guys were actually good friends, and then they had one massive falling out before coming together again in camaraderie, even though that, too, wouldn’t last forever. But to me, their one huge meltdown is an example of that cliche of the artist temperament: the ultra-sensitive soul who gets his feelings hurt and then responds wildly. We’re going to follow that rift between the two artists today.
Edouard Manet was born in Paris, on January 23, 1832, the first son of Auguste Manet, a high-ranking civil servant in the Ministry of Justice, and Eugenie-Desiree Fournier, the daughter of a French diplomat posted to Stockholm. There will be no story of the poor, struggling artist here, because Manet’s family was an upper-class family with strong political connections and the cash to back him in his chosen career— which wasn’t originally going to be art at all. His first dream was to become a high-ranking naval officer, but poor Manet wasn’t a very promising student. His secondary school called his work quote “wholly inadequate,” and when he attempted to pass the entrance exam to the Naval Academy, he bombed it. Nevertheless, he grabs a spot on a training ship bound for Rio de Janeiro and the 16-year-old Manet gives the life of the sea a good old college try, so to speak. When the ship returns to France the following year, he tries again to pass the entrance exam for the Naval Academy, to no avail. Surely that was a really depressing time for Edouard Manet, but he did make lemonade out of those lemons, and thought back to the many drawings and caricatures that he made of officers aboard the training ship. Why not try for a career in art instead? With his parents’ reluctant blessing (and their funds, too), Manet gave the life of a painter a shot. And oh man, are we glad that he did.
The next decade of Edouard Manet’s life is spent doing the typical things that a 19th-century artist would do. He first enrolled as a student on the register of copyists working in the Louvre, and then moved on to some more official training via the studio of the academic painter Thomas Couture. But it seems that this time period left Manet with some uncertainty, and he frequently complained to Couture and his fellow students, saying, quote,"I don't know what I'm doing here.” Nevertheless, those complaints were all for naught, because Manet didn’t leave— in fact, he ended up staying under Couture’s tutelage for six whole years. During that time, too, he took a trip to Italy with his younger brother, Eugene, and he had an extremely productive time in Florence, where he made copies of various works by old master painters, such as Fra Filipino Lippi, and, most tellingly, Titian’s masterpiece, Venus of Urbino, a seductive nude that would, rather importantly, made a lasting impression on him.
By 1859, Manet was feeling confident enough in his abilities, at age 27, to submit a painting to the Paris Salon— the most important art exhibition of the year, and probably the most important art exhibition of all Europe at that time. We talked a little bit about the importance of the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in our episode on Constable and Turner, but suffice to say that if the Summer Exhibition was big, the Paris Salon was huge. More than huge— anyone who was anyone attempted to be seen in and at the Salon, and it was important enough that artists from other countries even tried to break into it. In 1859, Manet presented a work modeled after the style of the great Spanish master Diego Velazquez, a piece called The Absinthe Drinker. This was to become Manet’s first great painting and shows the artist delving headfirst into that Modernist obsession— the street. Life of those who spent their time in the streets— prostitutes, vagabonds, the destitute— that was so fascinating to 19th century poets, writers, and artists, who felt that they most truly represented what life was all about, rather than those with stuffy upper-class mores. Interestingly, Manet’s Absinthe Drinker seems to straddle these worlds, as he looks to be drunk loitering in some shadowy alley, but he’s dressed in a brown cloak and a ridiculously tall top hat, as if he’s actually a reputable member of high society. Strange. What’s even odder is the angle of his legs in comparison to the trunk of his body. It’s almost like they were just tacked on as an afterthought. And those shadows we mentioned? They aren’t consistent with observation of actual light and shadows. The whole thing is fascinating, and a little bit of a mess. And maybe that, along with its lowbrow subject matter, is why it was rejected by the Paris Salon. No doubt this was a considerable blow to Manet, but like a moth to a flame, he at it, going back year after year with the intent on breaking through to the highest echelon of artistic achievement. In 1861, for example, he was admitted to the Salon, and one of his works, called The Spanish Singer, was even awarded an honorable mention. This is it! He made it, right? Well, at one of the next calls for the Salon, every single painting he proposed was denied outright once more.
Jumping ahead in perspective here for just a minute. When we talk about the advent of Modernism— one of those pivotal moments when art would change drastically, forever— moving to more abstraction and experimentation in styles, techniques and subject matter, for example— one of the names that pops up as the so-called “Father of Modernism” is Edouard Manet. Usually the mantle of First Modernist is argued as being between Manet and another Frenchman, Gustave Courbet— but regardless of who wins that personal battle of opinion, it must be noted that Manet would eventually become a turning point in all of art history. He is that important. But at this particular time in his career, Manet was still trying to find his way, and his goals and hopes were terribly old-fashioned. Despite his interest in the modern world— which grew every day— he still came up in the Academic style of painting, studying Rubens, Velazquez, Titian, Leonardo, and so many of the big names who came before him. That’s what he wanted, and his goals— like being in the Salon— followed suit. And this was pretty different from what would be the ultimate goals of another artist whom he bumped into one day while studying works of art at the Louvre.
Like the beginning of a rom-com, Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas met by chance around 1862, while copying the same artwork by Velázquez at the Louvre. And like Manet, Degas— who was two years younger— was originally in that academic art, history-painting-is-king mindset. By this point, Manet had become a convert to depicting modern Parisian life, and he would hold enough sway with his new friend that Degas would quickly convert, too. But he was quicker to leave behind expectations than Manet. Degas seems like he was a bit of a rebel- perhaps even a proto-hipster— in his hopes to go it alone, opting frequently to exhibit with the Impressionists instead of the old school artists he used to love. He would audibly disapprove of Manet’s persistent efforts to succeed within the academic art world and made it a point to reject conventions and art world recognition. The ironic part, though? Edgar Degas would submit works to the Paris Salon— and they were frequently accepted, unlike Manet’s works. So he must not have rejected convention and recognition all that much, at least not initially.
Born in Paris on July 19, 1834 to a wealthy banking family, Edgar Degas rigorously planned at an early age for a career as a history painter. Unfortunately, Degas, unlike Edouard Manet, had a pretty unsupportive father, who disapproved of his son’s career aspirations. Craving his father’s approval, Degas dutifully enrolled himself into law school in 1853, but he never took his eye off the prize. While applying minimal effort to his law studies, he registered as a copyist at the Louvre, just as Manet had done, and began sketching works of art there whenever he could spare the time. When he met his art hero, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, in 1855, that finally tipped the scales completely and Degas no longer denied his passion— he enrolled at the School of Fine Arts, ditched law, and began to pursue art wholeheartedly, studying abroad in Italy and making the Grand Tour before returning to Paris in the late 1850s and settling down to a hopeful career as a great history painter.
When Degas met Manet, the older painter’s interest and style caused little fractures to occur within Degas’s own thoughts about what art could and should be. Of course Degas didn’t drop history painting overnight and jump headfirst into Parisian nightlife scenes, but even though it wasn’t a dramatic shift, it would end up being a total one. Edgar Degas made his official debut with works accepted in the Paris Salon in 1865, and he continued to be accepted every year for the next five years. However, only one year into his Salon career, he had moved away from history painting entirely, inspired not only by Manet but by other artists working in experimental styles, like Renoir and Monet, and modern, bold writers like Zola and Mallarme. This is the Degas that most of us think of when his name comes to mind: the Degas of ballet dancers, milliners, horse jockeys, and cafe singers, dramatically spotlight and with a flurry of soft brushstrokes.
Take, for example, his Rehearsal for the Ballet Onstage, from around 1874, and today in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It’s a complicated scene with an oddly elevated angle, showing the stage from off to the right and slightly above what would be the orchestra pit. A slew of dancers are around- some are practicing at center stage at the behest of a suited dance master, dramatically lit from below, while most of them, and the closest to us, are waiting their turn in the wings. It’s so funny, because the action isn’t so much in the dancing, but in the not-dancing. Ballerinas are stretching, yawning, tying their shoes, and even scratching their backs, all while two mysterious men slouch nearby in chairs, watching their every move. The waiting dances are bored, not graceful. The men seem predatory, and indeed, there’s always been that link, warranted or not, between sugar daddies and the young, beautiful things of the stage, seeking companionship in all its forms. This may explain why the image was denied publication by the Illustrated London News on the grounds of “impropriety.” It looks all pretty, but man, there’s stuff going on here.
By the way, this particular painting was purchased in 1889 by another painter- one Walter Sickert. Remember him from previous episodes?
So Degas and Manet were like peas in a pod. They both sought to present the same aspects of Parisian life, and they each defended each other’s works to anyone who dared criticize the other. Degas was ever fervent in his support of his friend, especially when, in 1863 and 1865, Manet shocked all of Paris with two paintings practically back-to-back. For the Napoleon III-decreed art exhibition of Paris Salon rejects, called the Salon des Refusés, Manet brought a work called Dejeuner sur l’herbe, or Luncheon on the Grass in English. It’s here that Manet’s status as art history nerd really shines through, as his composition is a deft quoting of three figures from a lost work by Raphael called The Judgment of Paris, known primarily today via an engraving after it by Marcantonio Raimondi. It’s also a nice little call-back to works of one of his other favorite painters, Titian. Here, Manet shows a picnic lunch had by two impeccably dressed men and one buxom nude woman who stares at us viewers knowingly, and to the viewers and critics who saw the work at the Salon des Refusés, it was obscenity itself.
And then there came Olympia, his submission for the Paris Salon of 1865. Oh, Olympia. I gotta love this piece just because it really is a loving, if edgy, update of Titian’s Venus of Urbino, such a direct quote of the Renaissance master but transformed from an image of a perfect, seductive goddess to a wary and weary Parisian prostitute. It’s cheeky and subversive, and it, of course, was rejected outright by the Salon. But Degas backed up his buddy. These two were in it through thick and thin, through scandal and rejection, hope and progress.
That is, until 1869.
A few years into their friendship, our two artists decided to do something that is like the artsy version of exchanging those friendship necklaces— these two best friends decided to swap paintings, intending to gift each other personal and meaningful works of art. Edouard Manet gave a beautiful still life of plums to his dear pal. To which I say, “Huh.” Because with the distance of 150 years, I know Manet as this avant-garde painter who would indelibly affect modern art with his provocative yet smart canvases. And to me, a painting of plums sounds… underwhelming, to say the least. But it turns out that still lifes were on the rise in the 1860s and had grown exceedingly popular at the time, so Manet’s choice of a still life painting is like your buddy giving you an Alexa or an Apple Watch, or something. And it turned out that Manet’s still lifes were actually… enjoyed by most of Paris. While he was slammed for his paintings of female nudes, critics did not dare disparage his still-life canvases, which were considered his better work despite only forming one-fifth of his oeuvre. And naturally, Degas loved plums. All in all, a pretty sweet gift, right?
What’s far more interesting, though, is what Edgar Degas gifted to his friend. He chose to present something far more personal and intimate— a double portrait of Manet and his wife, Suzanne, with Suzanne playing the piano and Edouard reclining languidly, listening. The contrast between the Manets is striking— Suzanne, in a white dress, is upright and proper, while Edouard, in a black suit, lazes about with one hand supporting his head and another shoved into a pocket. His cheeks are flushed and his expression is… something. Is it dreamy? Relaxed? Bored? Either way, it’s a fascinating image, and at first glance, this gift exchange seems to have done what gift exchanges are meant to do: to show your pals that you appreciate them, are thinking of them, and that your friendship matters.
Except when Degas next visited his friend’s home, there was his painting, the double portrait— slashed apart. The portrait had been severed neatly, with the right third of the canvas sliced away. The weird thing, though, is that the problem with the canvas seems to have been the depiction of Suzanne Manet. Imagine it— after living with a portrait for a few days, Manet becomes increasingly bothered by what he’s seen, and at some point becomes— what? Incensed? Or is he simply in a critical phase, as an artist? So he takes his knife, but he doesn’t cut Suzanne out of the picture entirely. Instead, he cuts the canvas right down the middle of her body- from her temple down. Her rounded shoulders and backside remain, but her profile, and those piano-playing hands, are gone. That's the strangest thing of all, to me. Unfortunately, Manet’s reasoning for this was not saved to history, so we will always be left to wonder. But Degas’s response was recorded. In a conversation with the famed art dealer, Ambroise Vollard, Degas noted, quote, “To think it was Manet who did that! He thought that something about Mme. Manet wasn't right. Well . . . I'm going to try to "restore" Mme. Manet. What a shock I had when I saw it at Manet's. . . .I left without saying goodbye, taking my picture with me. When I got home, I took down a little still life he had given me. "Monsieur," I wrote, "I am returning your 'Plums.' "
Author Otto Friedrich follows the through-line of this tale in his book Olympia: Paris in the Age of Manet, and writes that Degas did indeed try to make good on this offer to “restore” Mme Manet. But all didn’t go as planned. As Friedrich writes, quote, “Degas never did get around to repairing his portrait of Suzanne at the piano, and so it remains a strangely mutilated relic, a memento of some inexplicable fury in Manet. Whatever it was that he so disliked in Degas's portrait, he decided to fix himself. He painted Suzanne in exactly the same pose, in profile at the piano, but if he thought Degas's version was unflattering, he hardly remedied that. He shows us … a stolid and heavy woman at least 10 years older than Suzanne's actual 38. In future pictures, indeed, he often painted her from the back, or apologetically shadowed her face, but here he defiantly portrays a big-nosed, rubicund woman who is simply ugly. And strangely enough, she is not really playing the piano. Her hands simply lie motionless on the keyboard. If music was her artistic contribution to the household, Manet apparently neither heard it nor saw it.”
One is left wondering, based on Manet’s various responses and images of his own wife, if perhaps the marriage wasn’t a happy one, or that the couple was experiencing some kind of ongoing conflict. Forgive me, now, but I’m going to indulge in a little art world gossip. The story goes that Suzanne originally met Edouard Manet when she was hired by his father, Auguste, to teach piano to Edouard and his younger brothers. I so frequently think of piano lessons as something that a parent would typically afflict on a prepubescent child, but that wasn’t the case with the Manet boys-- they were actually men in their twenties when Suzanne came into their lives, and Suzanne and Edouard Manet quickly became involved, but kept their relationship a secret for many years. The reasoning for the hush-hush nature is still in dispute today, suffice to say that there is some thought that Suzanne may have been the mistress to Auguste Manet, Edouard’s dad, as well. In 1852, only one year after Suzanne was hired by the Manets, she gave birth to a son, Léon-Edouard, whom she would eventually pass off as her little brother before acknowledging, before her death, that she was indeed his mother. But the question still remains: which Manet, if either, was little Léon’s daddy? Bringing it all back to the Degas picture that Manet destroyed leaves us still to wonder if there wasn't something bigger going on besides that something that “wasn’t right,” as Degas said of Manet. Okay, gossipy aside over. That may very well be an episode of ArtCurious for another day.
It seems that for all his shock and sadness, Edgar Degas ended up making amends with Edouard Manet, despite the destruction of his gifted painting. As Degas noted to Vollard, quote, “How could you expect anyone to stay on bad terms with Manet?” With Degas holding onto the double portrait with high hopes of fixing it, now it was Manet’s turn to reciprocate and return the plums that had been given to Degas. Alas, though, Manet up and sold it. Maybe he wasn’t as affected as Degas was by their falling-out and was happy to make some cash on his work. Maybe he specifically sold it quickly in order to get it off his hands and be rid of any bad memories that the work brought up in him. So many questions and so few answers.
Although Degas and Manet mended their friendship (at least somewhat), their bond did not last for the rest of their lives. As Degas aged, he became increasingly isolated, partially because he believed that the artist’s life was, and should, be a solitary one. As he became more and more of a recluse, his camaraderie with Manet would also fade. Meanwhile, Manet continued on with Suzanne, raising her- child-slash-his-son-slash-his-brother. Degas grew more and more misanthropic, which happened to coincide with his increasing anti-Semitism as well. Towards the end of his life, Manet had his left leg amputated due to gangrene, only to die from syphilis in 1883. Unfortunately for Degas, he would live a longer life than his former friend, and that longer life wasn’t so rosy. Degas was left to wander the streets of Paris alone and with worsening vision for an additional thirty-four years after Manet’s death, until eventually passing away in 1917.
It’s a sad reality that some friendships don’t last. Sometimes our best friends disappoint us. Sometimes we disappoint others and ourselves. But for short periods of time, there are those who flit into our lives to become our greatest supporters. Manet and Degas were that for each other-- even though the friendship morphed into animosity before changing back to camaraderie and then shifting to indifference. That doesn’t change the fact that there was this shining moment in their lives when they were there for each other, in the middle of scandal and success. And though it’s not as flashy as learning about a big blowup between two artists, perhaps that’s the part that we should be focusing our energies on-- the friendship, the support, and the admiration.
Next time on the ArtCurious Podcast, it’s our season finale, and we’re ending it with two of the biggest names of the 20th century, duking it out in a metaphorical battle for the future of modern art. That’s coming up in two weeks- subscribe now, and don’t miss it.
Thank you for listening to this episode of the ArtCurious Podcast. This episode was written, produced, and narrated by me, Jennifer Dasal, in association with Sartle.com, who provided much of the research for this episode. This is the third of three episodes this season that we are did in collaborating with our friends at Sartle, and it was so much fun. Sartle encourages you to see art history differently, and they have a plethora of incredibly wonderful and informative videos, blog posts, and articles on their website. Check it out at sartle.com.
Our theme music is by Alex Davis at alexdavismusic.com, and social media help is by Emily Crockett. Our production and editorial services are provided by Kaboonki Creative. Video. Content. Ideas. Learn more at kaboonki.com.
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As always, you can also go to our website for images, information and links to our previous episodes. That site is artcuriouspodcast.com. And you can contact us via the website, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at artcuriouspod. --and remember to subscribe and review us on Apple Podcasts and tell anyone you want about the show. Check back in two weeks as we continue to explore the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in rivalries of art history.