(Widener Collection; National Gallery of Art)

Édouard Manet (b. 1832)

The Dead Toreador, ca. 1864

On view at the National Gallery of Art

Great Works, In Focus

Death becomes him

Manet captured the spectacle of the moment in his 19th-century image of a deceased toreador

Edouard Manet’s “The Dead Toreador,” ca. 1864. On view at the National Gallery of Art. (Widener Collection; National Gallery of Art)

In 1864, the year Édouard Manet painted his dead bullfighter, a gleaming new morgue was built in Paris, just behind Notre Dame. The updated facility was bigger and had better sanitation than the old morgue, which had long been a magnet for rats.

Along with straight boulevards and advanced plumbing, the morgue was part of Baron Haussmann’s dramatic mid-century overhaul of medieval Paris. Haussmann and his boss, Napoleon III, wanted to make the city cleaner, more efficient, more conducive to spectacle. The morgue, which had its own exhibition room for the display of unidentified bodies, complied with all three aims.

“The Dead Toreador” also complied. Embodying Manet’s most attractive quality — a kind of studied nonchalance — it depicts an existence at once hygienically snuffed out and elevated to the level of pure style.

Never has death seemed less grisly, more immaculate and resplendent. The bullfighter’s costume and cape evoke the spectacle of the bullring. Although blood pools by his left shoulder, its function is less to disturb the viewer than to enhance the picture’s decorum — harmonizing the red of his lips, his pink cape and his taut, rose-tinted sash.

At this point, although he had not yet been to Spain, Manet was infatuated with all things Spanish. Two years earlier, he had painted his favorite model, Victorine Meurent, as a cross-dressing bullfighter wielding a sword and a pink cape. He also painted his brother Gustave in the same bolero and trousers worn by Meurent.

“The Dead Toreador,” which now resides at the National Gallery of Art, was originally part of a bigger composition showing the bullfighter in the foreground and a bullring behind. But Manet had trouble with the composition. After it was widely mocked in its public debut, he took a knife to it, sliced it in sections and reworked the two parts he wanted to preserve. (The other part hangs in the Frick Collection.)

The almost uncanny composure of the man’s right hand, resting on his chest, recalls the hand of Meurent, in Manet’s “Olympia,” resting on her naked thigh. When “Olympia” showed at the 1865 Salon — Paris’s annual showcase for new art — at least four critics compared Meurent’s very pale body, with its sooty shadows, to a cadaver. Perhaps they had all paid a recent visit to the new morgue at the Quai Napoleon on the Ile de la Cité?

It had already become a major tourist attraction. Part of its function was to provide an opportunity for people to claim the bodies of suicides and murder victims. So the morgue had a Salle du Public — an exhibition room, where corpses of all ages — often bloated from drowning, hideously disfigured and naked but for a piece of leather covering their loins — were laid out behind a glass partition on two rows of black marble tables.

These marble slabs were inclined toward the viewer and cooled by running water (this was in the days before refrigeration). The bodies were displayed for three days; most were never claimed.

The word “morgue” comes from the Old French “morguer,” meaning “to look at solemnly.” But observers soon began to lament the absence of appropriate solemnity at this macabre “show.” “A perpetual stream of men, women, and children is running out of this horrible exhibition,” wrote the author of a contemporary travelers’ guide — in language remarkably similar to that used by critics reviewing Manet’s efforts at the Salon — “and there they stand gazing at the hideous objects before them usually with great indifference.”

Part of the reason Manet is regarded as the father of modernism is that his paintings uncovered fault lines that were fresh at the time but keep getting wider. “The Dead Toreador” is a fine example: It is one of the smoothest, coolest, most ravishing things he painted. But it conjures a weird atmosphere that, like a news report, hovers somewhere between indifference and disinterest.

In so doing, it reveals a fault line: that brittle, crumbly part of the social fabric where disinterest — the noble search for objective truth — rubs up against spectacle — the instinct to gawk from a safe distance, equally aroused by beauty and horror, unable to register the difference.

Sebastian Smee

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.