Sunday, April 24, 2016

Blowing Bubbles

Edgar de Gas (he was not yet spelling his name Degas when they met in eth Louvre in 1862) was painting portraits including one of Manet and his wife Suzanne in 1866 showing Manet lounging in a fit of boredom as his wife plays the piano. If this likeness was unflattering, the one of Suzanne must have been far worse, since Manet took such exception to Degas' depiction of his wife that he took a knife to the canvas and expurgated her face and hands. Degas was enraged by this act of vandalism, and for several months the two men had refused to speak. The rift was soon healed, however: Degas claimed that "one cannot stay vexed with Manet for very long." And shortly after their reconciliation, Degas seems to have fours Manet's fifteen-year-old godson employment at the Banque de Gas. d Leon Koella was not living in the apartment in the Rue de Saint-Petersbourg that Manet and Suzanne were sharing with his mother. More modest lodgings had been found for him in a ground-floor flat in the building next door. Manet paid frequent visits to the boy, and most evenings the pair of them competed at games of backgammon and bezique. Leon had posed for his godfather on a number of occasions, most recently as the young dandy in View of the Univer-sal Exposition of z86:7. He was, in fact, Manet's favorite model, ultimately pos-ing for him more times even than Victorine Meurent, which suggests that Manet, who always feared being let down by his models, found the boy a com-pliant sitter. Therefore, when a new idea for a painting came to him in the weeks following Baudelaire's death, he naturally turned to Leon; and in be-tween running his errands at the Banque de Gas, the boy therefore found him-self in the studio in the Rue Guyot, blowing soap bubbles. Soap bubbles had long been a source of fascination to scientists and artists alike. Even as Manet was painting his canvas, a Belgian physicist named Joseph-Antoine-Ferdinand Plateau was dipping wire frameworks into tubs of soapy water in an attempt to describe the geometrical properties of bubbles, in-cluding the precise angles at which they clustered together.' Manet's interest in soap bubbles, like that of most artists, was rather different. The soap bubble had been used for several centuries in what was known as a vanitas, a painting whose purpose was to remind viewers (through symbols such as skulls, time-pieces and snuffed-out candles and lanterns) of the vanity and brevity of earthly life. With its intimations of the evanescence of life and inevitability of death, Manet's Boy Blowing Soap Bubbles faithfully followed this genre. Never-theless, if Manet was brooding on death and extinction, he also perhaps kept a shrewd eye on his artistic career. Executed with a careful brushwork, Boy Blowing Soap Bubbles was a beautiful and inoffensive painting of the sort beloved by Salon juries and art collectors alike.

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