If you're any kind of art lover at all, now's the time for a New York trip. The city is hosting a touring mega-exhibition that pairs one of the greatest French artists and one of the top talents from Spain. I'm not talking about "Matisse Picasso," at the Museum of Modern Art, despite the massive hype around that show. Fit that one in on some spare afternoon. The crucial exhibition of the season is "Manet/Velazquez," launched this month at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The show, which presents more than 200 works of art, gives a rare chance to study some superb pictures by Diego Velazquez and his 17th-century compatriots Francisco Zurbaran, Bartolome Esteban Murillo and Jusepe Ribera, as well as works by El Greco from the late 16th century and Francisco Goya from the turn of the 19th. These are all brilliant painters not much seen outside of Spain. The exhibition also gives a chance to come to grips with a broad spread of Spanish-inspired pictures by Edouard Manet, one of the most intriguing, hard-to-pin-down figures in the history of Western art, as well as by some of his contemporaries on the Paris scene and in the United States.
It's not quite news that Manet and other 19th-century Frenchmen had a weakness for all things Spanish. But precisely how and when and why those links were forged has never been spelled out in anything like the detail we get here. With a thoroughness that sometimes verges on pedantry, the curators guide us through the early ignorance of Spanish art in France, to the growing taste for Iberian culture after Napoleon's Spanish wars, to the consolidation of Hispanic styles and motifs in French painting of the later 19th century.
Strangely, however, the more we learn about the crucial Spanish influence on Manet's scene, the less convinced we are that it can account for his very special excellence: A whole raft of artists looked to Spain for fresh ideas, but somehow only Manet came away with a lot more than castanets.
The first 50 or so years of French Hispanophilia didn't come to very much.
We see exotic Spanish subject matter creeping into French culture and art.
And there's a dose of Spanish style, too: French romantics loved the moody lighting of Spanish painting -- its so-called "tenebrism" -- and its spooky religious fervor. They were also able to transfer some of its streetwise realism into their art, as an antidote to the slick idealism of neoclassicists like David and Ingres. Ragged beggars and wrinkled seniors, most often posed as sentimental holy men and sinners, start to get big play in the Spanish-flavored art of France.
It so happens that those were the aspects of Spanish art that were mostly on show in Paris, because the pictures to be seen were mostly by artists of the Spanish high baroque such as Murillo, Zurbaran and Ribera, who made a specialty of intense emotion conveyed through the everyday.
The crucial master that didn't figure into this first Spanish-French equation was Velazquez himself. French artists simply didn't have too much by him to look at, and didn't learn much even from what there was to see. It took Manet to change all that, beginning in about 1860 -- 200 years after the Spanish master's death.
Already as a young man, Manet recognized that there was something special to be found even in the few Velazquez paintings he could have come across. (He might also have known the Spanish master's oils through the kind of Velazquez-flavored canvases by Goya now at the Met. A spectacular Goya still life of fish, on loan to this show from Houston, was eventually bought by one of Manet's friends.) Velazquez didn't follow his peers in using the everyday to raise a picture's dramatic pitch -- to make us feel the pathos of religious imagery, for instance, even more intensely. Instead, he liked to present the quotidian for its own sake, in its own light. His astounding portraits of the dwarfs and fools of the Spanish court give these figures an immediacy, a humane presence, that counteracts the freakishness that won them their jobs.
"The Dwarf Don Diego de Acedo" presents the small man sitting with a massive open book, staring into space with as much wisdom and nobility as any big-time thinker or potentate. In fact, he comes off as more noble-minded, more morally substantial, than the Spanish royal prince Don Carlos whose Velazquez portrait hangs beside him at the Met. But then, what princes got from Velazquez's brush wasn't ostentatious grandeur, but the dose of humanity that would bring them closer to the less imposing figures they ruled over.
Don Carlos is shown with a few modest trappings of nobility -- a gold shoulder belt and pendant set off from his sober black clothes -- but they read as almost incidental to the simple, forthright personhood that the painter gives to him. He stands against a plain brown wall, with only his own human resources to help him fill the empty space around him. ("There's nothing but air surrounding this fellow," was Manet's line about another full-length portrait by the Spaniard.)
In Velazquez, even the great sages of antiquity are made to stand or fall on their own merits as human beings: Aesop the fabulist, whose "portrait" hangs on the other side of the dwarf's, is shown as just a plain old man, not heroically set to overcome his birth in slavery so much as living comfortably with it. And all three of these figures, like almost all the other 14 pictures by Velazquez in this show, are painted with a stunning vigor and immediacy. White paint is brushed on over black with a bravado that only a handful of other artists -- Manet among them -- have ever fully mastered. In Velazquez, you could even argue that the painter bluntly pushing paint onto his canvas comes to be imagined as a kind of surrogate for his candid sitters. (This wall of just three paintings, all brought over from the Prado, is worth the New York trip all by itself.)
The genius of Manet was to recognize that he only needed to transplant all of this onto 19th century subjects to achieve a whole new kind of unsentimental, straightforward modern realism.
At first, caught up in the French fad for all things Spanish, he translated Velazquez's art to contemporary scenes from the Iberian peninsula: A singing guitar player, a still life with a Spanish hat, a dead toreador. (The bullfighter seems closely based on a picture of a soldier's corpse Manet could have seen in a French collection, where it was labeled a Velazquez. That fascinating picture, now in the collection of the National Gallery in London and believed to be by an unknown Italian artist, has been hung at the Met within sight of the derivation from it by Manet. The later picture now stands out as more profoundly like a true Velazquez than its source ever was.)
Then, in 1865, Manet made his only trip to Spain. A new railway had made the trip less painful than it once had been, but Manet still cut his stay down to two weeks, apparently because he couldn't bear the food. Two weeks, however, was enough for him to get a full dose of Velazquez in the flesh, and to realize that he didn't need explicit Hispanisms any more to bring Velazquez into the modern world.
A little fifer in French uniform could be given the same sober self-containment as one of those Velazquez Spanish dwarfs, and could be painted with the same upfront technique. ("Good, clean work," he called the Velazquez touch. "It puts you off the brown-sauce school.") Beggars straight from the Paris street could be labeled "philosophers," and go head-to-head with the everyday sages of Velazquez. Famous actors from the Paris stage could rival the old master's jesters, even his Madrid aristocrats, without having to get dressed up in Spanish clothes.
This laconic, sometimes almost cryptic directness is what Manet had learned from Spanish art, and then passed on to a mass of painters on both sides of the Atlantic. From Parisians such as Edgar Degas and Auguste Renoir to Yankees like John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler and William Merritt Chase, the later painters in this exhibition are shown often treating Spanish subjects, but nearly always painting with some kind of Spanish accent caught from Manet.
The example of Spanish art and culture mattered, clearly, in letting Manet do his groundbreaking thing. But it took his own peculiar talents to make it work for him and his contemporaries.
Manet/Velazquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting, organized by the Musee d'Orsay in Paris and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, is at the Met through June 8. Call 212-535-7710 or visit www.metmuseum.org