Why did the Frenchman Manet paint a Spanish matador?

Édouard Manet was infatuated with all things Spanish — and especially Spain’s greatest painter

Art is inseparable from society, but the two things don’t seem to progress in lockstep. The relationship is closer to that of a dog and its owner when the dog is let off the leash. The dog is art; it’s having all the fun. But it knows where its owner is at all times.

Consider the case of French artist Édouard Manet (1832-1883), who for much of his career was infatuated with all things Spanish.

Manet was an avowed republican who came into his own as a painter under the authoritarian regime of Napoleon III. Risking censorship and worse, he criticized the emperor in paint, reserving special contempt for his disastrous colonialist ambitions. Ironically, though, Manet’s infatuation with Spanish painting would never have been ignited without the aggressive expansionism of the emperor’s uncle, the original Napoleon.

Before Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Spain, Spanish art was all but unknown in France. French looting changed all that. The confiscation by Napoleon’s generals of Spanish masterpieces by Velázquez, Ribera, Zurbarán, Murillo and Goya sparked a rage for Spanish art among French artists. Among those most enthused were Eugene Delacroix and Gustave Courbet, two important influences on Manet.

The vogue built to a crescendo in the 50 years after the Pensinsular War (1807-1814), peaking with a series of works on Spanish themes by Manet in the 1860s. This 1866-1867 painting of the illustrious matador Cayetano Sanz y Pozas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is, for me, a high-water mark — a perfect expression of Manet’s puppyish infatuation with his hero, Diego Velázquez.

How did a republican like Manet come to revere a court artist who spent his career enhancing the prestige of the autocratic monarch King Philip IV? When you’re in front of the paintings, it’s irrelevant. Painters speak to other painters like dogs to other dogs: Their clueless masters have nothing to do with it.

Take a moment, in this case, to drink in the scattered, staccato bursts of local color: the bright yellow lining of the matador’s hat, his red cape and (in between) the mellower harmony of his baby blue tie and pale pink sash and jacket-lining. The pink and blue chime with the chocolate brown and blue-dappled gray of the rest of his costume. The overall effect expands the lungs like an unanticipated declaration of love.

Manet didn’t actually visit Spain until 1865, by which time his Spanish infatuation was already in full swing. When he did, Velázquez overwhelmed him. In Madrid, after seeing Velázquez’s full-length portrait of the jester Pablo de Valladolid, he described it as “possibly the most extraordinary piece of painting that has ever been done.”

Manet opted for sharper tonal contrasts than Velázquez. The transitions from light to dark in the matador’s face and stockings, for instance, are abrupt to the point of coarseness. (To contemporary critics, it made Manet’s style seem vulgar — the painted equivalent of slang.) But in other ways, you can see how much he learned from the Spaniard’s surpassingly debonair brushwork, which was deliberately loose and approximate, the better to match the way the eye registers visual phenomena before their synthesis in the brain. (The link with Impressionism is obvious.)

Manet’s touch is unabashedly erotic. Observe the sash, stretched and pleated across the matador’s waist. You can feel the drag of the painter’s brush, feathering colored oils across the canvas. It looks nonchalant, dashing, but is actually done with extraordinary care and finesse. With utmost economy and no recourse to perspectival framing, the sash carves out an illusion of volume on a pancake-flat canvas.

“The background disappears,” Manet wrote after seeing Velázquez’s portrait of the court jester, “there’s nothing but air around the fellow, who is all in black and appears alive.”

A similar effect of airy immediacy, updated to reflect a more democratic 19th-century sensibility, is what Manet sought here. One critic called him “a Velázquez of the boulevards.”

He would have wagged his tail to hear that.

A Matador, 1866-1867
Édouard Manet (b. 1832). At the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Great Works, In Focus

A series featuring art critic Sebastian Smee’s favorite works in permanent collections around the United States. “They are things that move me. Part of the fun is trying to figure out why.”

Photo editing and research by Kelsey Ables. Design and development by Joanne Lee, Leo Dominguez and Junne Alcantara.

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Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.