Painted in 1870, this major still life has as a centerpiece a large brioche decorated with a pale pink rose. Arranged around it are peaches, grapes, a basket of plums, a mid-eighteenth-century japanned red box, a steel knife with a silver gilt blade and mother-of-pearl handle, and a fringed white napkin, all spread atop an ormolu-decorated marquetry table of the eighteenth century. This table is similar in design to a ca. 1755 writing table (or table à écrire
) by Bernard II van Risenburgh in The Met’s collection (The Met, 1976.155.100
). (For more on the identification of the table and the objects atop it, see Notes.)Related Compositions:
Manet painted at least four other still lifes with a brioche. A smaller canvas, Brioche with Pears
(Dallas Museum of Art and The Arts, Ltd.), is dated by Rouart and Wildenstein (RW251) to 1876. Anne Coffin Hanson (1979) identified the vertical composition Still Life with Brioche
(Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh: formerly in the Thomas W. Evans Collection at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine; see Additional Images, fig. 1) as the painting Manet referred to in one of his notebooks as: “Evans, 1880, brioche . . . 500 Fr.,” observing that Manet must have sold the picture directly to Evans for five hundred francs. In it, the face of a cat appears next to the brioche and above the highly foreshortened, cropped green pears in the foreground. In both the Dallas and Pittsburgh pictures, a rose is inserted into the brioche. Regarding this detail, Richard Brettell has noted that while some French families decorate their brioche in this manner on Easter morning as a symbol of resurrection, the summer fruits depicted in Manet’s three canvases argue that they were painted during the summer (Brettell 1995; see also Tabarant 1947 for a summer dating of The Met’s painting). Another canvas, Nature morte, huîtres, citron, brioche
(1876, Dickinson Gallery, London and New York, RW 252) includes a smaller brioche alongside a knife. The Pittsburgh and Dickinson Gallery pictures repeat the dark background of The Met canvas, whereas the Dallas painting includes as a background wallpaper with trellis and flower motifs. Finally, Manet’s friend the painter Jacques-Emile Blanche (1919) mentions a fourth still life with a brioche, dated “October 27, 1881, 77, rue Saint-Pétersbourg.”Background for the painting:
In 1870, Edouard Manet was feeling very self-assured. When the critic Edmond Duranty wrote mockingly in Paris-Journal
that February of two paintings Manet exhibited at the Cercle de l’Union artistique, Manet smacked him, challenging him to a duel that injured his opponent (Bazire 1884; Tabarant 1947, p. 173). He exhibited two more paintings at the official Paris Salon; took part in a committee to change the selection of the Salon jury; and was one of the central subjects of two group portraits set in ateliers: Frédéric Bazille’s L’atelier de Bazille
and Henri Fantin-Latour’s Un atelier aux Batignolles
(both 1870, Musée d’Orsay, Paris). So self-confident was he that he even took it upon himself to improve upon Bazille’s portrait of himself in the group portrait in Bazille’s rue de la Condamine studio as well as Berthe Morisot’s painting The Mother and Sister of the Artist
(1869/1870, National Gallery of Art, Washington), destined for the Salon that year. That summer, he headed to Saint-Germain-en-Laye, just outside Paris, to spend time at the small country home of his friend and fellow painter Giuseppe de Nittis (1846–1884), where it is most likely that he painted The Met’s masterful still-life painting (Tabarant 1947).
Manet responded especially to the device of the white linen napkin, animated by the play of light and shadows. The fringed corner that hangs over the edge of the table is a conventional illusionistic device, further enhanced by the knife, set at a diagonal with its handle slightly projecting. He had employed a white linen cloth and a knife similarly six years earlier in Fruits sur une table
(Fruit on a Table) (see Additional Images, fig. 2).Manet’s Sources and Still-Life Conventions:
It is generally acknowledged that Manet’s painting was a response to a famous work by the great eighteenth-century French master of still-life painting, Jean Siméon Chardin, whose Brioche
(see Additional Images, fig. 3) had just entered the Louvre in 1869 as a part of the La Caze bequest. The two works share a number of motifs, including the diagonal placement of the support (a stone ledge rather than a marquetry table in Chardin’s painting), the anchoring motif of a brioche (adorned by an orange blossom in Chardin’s composition), varied fruits, and the trompe-l’oeil motif of a diagonally placed object (a biscuit in Chardin’s canvas; a knife in Manet’s). Interestingly, Chardin employed a knife set at a similar angle in the pendant to The Brioche
, his Grapes and Pomegranates
(see Additional Images, fig. 4), in which grapes spill over the edge of the horizontal support much like the fringed cloth in Manet’s composition. Manet’s use of an eighteenth-century Rococo table makes clear his homage to Chardin (Loyrette 1994).
Other possible sources for Manet’s picture include Dutch seventeenth-century painters, such as Willem Claesz Heda and Pieter Claesz; the eighteenth-century Spanish still-life master Luis Meléndez; and Manet’s French contemporaries François Bonvin, Henri Fantin-Latour, Philippe Rousseau (see, for example, The Met, 1982.320
, though dated slightly after), and Antoine Vollon. He would have seen some of these earlier sources on his travels to Holland and Spain, particularly to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam (1852) and the Museo del Prado in Madrid (1865), probably viewing at the latter both Meléndez’s Still Life with Fruit, Cheese, and Containers
(see Additional Images, fig. 5) and his Still Life with Watermelon, Pastries, Bread, and Wine
(1770), with their low viewpoint and highly saturated red, orange, and yellow hues by which Manet seems to have been inspired (for example, in the deep red of his sweets box in the present picture). Like Rousseau, one of the most fashionable still-life painters of the era, Manet brought clutter to his brioche-dominated tabletop, a clutter most familiar as a generalized symbol for abundance and wealth, as in Dutch seventeenth-century precedents, and appealing especially to more affluent patrons. His stronger use of texture and looser brushwork may not have attracted those used to the finish of Salon paintings, but it did catch the eye of a like-minded collector, the great French baritone Jean-Baptiste Faure (see The Met, 59.129
), who may have purchased the picture directly from Manet. Faure owned sixty-seven paintings by Manet (Monneret 1978), among them his Mlle. V. . . . in the Costume of an Espada
(The Met, 29.100.53
) and A Matador
(The Met, 29.100. 52
).Manet and Still-Life Painting:
For Manet, still life was “the touchstone of the painter.” He made this declaration when asking his friend Blanche to bring along a brioche for him to paint (Blanche 1919). He is said to have also once told fellow artist Charles Toché, “A painter can say all he wants to with fruit or flowers or even clouds. . . . You know, I should like to be the Saint Francis of still life” (Vollard 1936). Clearly, such forays into the genre as The Brioche
yielded rich results steeped in the historical traditions of still-life painting yet transported to Manet’s more modern painterly sensibilities of purposely visible, lively brushwork and strong contrasts of black and white.
Manet’s first entries into still-life painting came after his student years in 1859–62 with his Still Life with Flowers, Fan, and Pearls
(The Met, 1993.399
), which may be his earliest flower painting, and Oysters
(see Additional Images, Fig. 6), a gift for his soon-to-be wife, Suzanne Leenhoff (Tabarant 1947, p. 58). (The two married the following year.) There, in a reference to the still-life tradition native to Leenhoff’s Netherlands, Manet embraced the aphrodisiac potential of oysters, much prized in the Netherlands. Claesz and Heda, who often depicted oysters served with lemon and mustard in traditional stoneware—as in the canvas in the National Gallery, Washington—must have been on his mind. One critic compared the painting favorably to Chardin’s still lifes (noted in Borgmeyer 1913); Chardin, too, varied his paint surface, with some areas particularly thickly laid on, and kept his subject simple.
From that auspicious and well-received beginning, Manet continued to receive accolades for his still lifes. Emile Zola wrote in 1867 that “the most vocal enemies of Edouard Manet’s talent grant him that he paints inanimate objects well” (Zola 1974). He had just exhibited a few at his own show at the Pavillion de l’Alma during the Universal Exposition in Paris that year. As Loyrette (1994) has noted, even in Manet’s figural paintings that were less well-received, critics often singled out the still lifes for praise, adding (p. 156), “Like Cézanne and Monet, whom he would later influence, Manet found in the still life, obedient and available, a laboratory for his experimentation with color, the results of which were immediately reflected in other compositions.” In works like his Still Life with Melon and Peaches
(see Additional Images, fig. 7), the artist explored not only a family of greens, yellows, and pinks, but a bright white linen cloth variegated with textured pattern that he returned to again and again in still lifes such as The Salmon
(ca. 1868, Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont), luncheon scenes such as Luncheon in the Studio
(1868, Neue Pinakothek, Munich), and others. This approach to the linen, leaving the lines of its folds clearly distinct, as in The Met’s picture, derives from Spanish rather than Dutch precedents, where the linen has a decidedly softer, less starched appearance.
Just after 1870, Manet changed his approach to still life, moving from the abundant compositions of The Brioche
and Still Life with Melon and Peaches
to smaller studies of individual fruits, vegetables, or a few flowers. The Met’s Strawberries
(ca. 1882, 56.230.1
) is one such fruit-filled composition from the end of his life. His Still Life with Brioche
(fig. 1) is an example of his pared-down compositions applied specifically to the brioche.
[Jane R. Becker 2017]Citations:
Edmond Bazire, Manet
, Paris, 1884, pp. 32–34.
Jacques-Emile Blanche, Propos de peintre: De David à Degas
, Paris, 1919, p. 143.
Charles Borgmeyer, The Master Impressionists
, Chicago, 1913, pp. 237–38.
Sophie Monneret, L’Impressionnisme et son époque
, Paris, 1978, vol. 1, p. 207.
Ambroise Vollard, Recollections of a Picture Dealer
, Violet M. Macdonald, trans., Boston, 1936, p. 153.
Emile Zola, Le bon combat de Courbet aux impressionnistes: anthologie d’écrits sur l’art
, Jean-Paul Bouillon, ed., Paris, 1974, p. 91.
For all other citations, see References.