The Discomfort of Portraiture
Édouard Manet was an artist ahead of his time. Working in mid-19th century France, he was caught in between two strong desires; one to rebel against the institutionalization of the Salon, like his teacher Gustave Courbet, while at the same time he also craved the approval of the very institution that he wanted to move beyond. Trapped in this duality, Manet managed to create many unique and striking portraits that leave the viewer with a sense of discomfort. More often than not the viewer is given a portrait and left unable to decide what to do with it. When compared to some of the works of his painting idol, Diego Velázquez, Manet’s pieces have remarkable similarities. The uncomfortable gazes, the costumed figures, and this air of discomfort in the faces of the subjects. When viewing some of Manet’s pieces, the viewer does not necessarily sense the discomfort upon first glance, but upon further investigation and study of each painting the awkwardness and the anxiety become more and more evident. The juxtaposition of each portrait makes each uniquely uncomfortable. He seems to draw from his teacher, Gustave Courbet, as well in this theme of disquiet. What makes Boy with a Sword awkward is different from what makes Young Woman in 1866 awkward. Why is this trope of discomfort worthwhile for artists to make time and again?
Boy with a Sword, Édouard Manet, 1861, Oil on canvas, 89.21.2
Manet’s Boy with a Sword is an intriguing portrait. On first glance, it is just a young boy holding a sword but with more inspection the viewer gets a sense of how uncomfortable the boy is. The size of the sword and the boy’s pose make it reasonably clear that the boy is uncomfortable. Is he giving the sword to the viewer? Or rather is he pulling it away from the viewer? What exactly is it that the boy wants from the viewer? He has every sign of youth but no semblance of youthful joy or vigor.
María Teresa, Infanta of Spain, Diego Velázquez, 1651-54, Oil on canvas, 49.7.43
Velázquez gives us a portrait of the princess of Spain two hundred years before Manet began painting. Nevertheless, the viewer can easily see the similarity between the two painters’ styles. The young princess is equally youthful as Manet’s young boy but in the same fashion, seems to lack any emotion let alone any joy. She is just staring at the viewer, with her large wig full of butterfly ribbons. Rosy cheeks and butterflies do little to ease the disquiet in the painting.
Woman in a Riding Habit (L’Amazone), Gustave Courbet, 1856, Oil on canvas, 29.100.59
Gustave Courbet’s Woman in a Riding Habit is almost dreary. The bluish-gray sky, the almost completely black outfit of the woman, and dreariest of all: the woman’s facial expression. Her face is down, but her eyes point to the viewer as if to implicate the viewer in whatever it is that is causing her such clear discomfort. Either going to or coming from a leisure activity (horseback riding) she seems to be very ill at ease.
Portrait of a Buffoon with a Dog, Diego Velázquez, 1645, Oil on canvas, Museo Nacional del Prado, Spain
Here Velázquez paints a quirky portrait of a dwarf with a large dog. The juxtaposition between the size of the man and the dog is one thing that makes this mildly off-putting. The fine clothes, the sword, and the fancy hat also strike as odd because of the title: buffoon. The artist calls this man a buffoon but he does not seem to resemble a fool. The man does appear upset, or at least irritated. He’s certainly not amused, or happy and this leaves the viewer uncomfortable.
Woman with a Parrot, Gustave Courbet, 1866, Oil on canvas, 29.100.57
Courbet’s Woman with a Parrot is an interesting painting of a reclining female nude. With a less stable composition, the viewer’s eye wanders more easily than with previous pieces. The woman is lying down on a bed or couch and she has brightly colored parrot perched lightly on her left hand. Again, the viewer is left at a slight loss. What is the viewer meant to understand, or to do with this painting? It is not as obviously awkward as the others, except maybe since the female is nude and not a Greek or Roman goddess. Close up, the woman is smiling with her teeth, something that does not translate to painting well. Her smile might be the most discomforting thing in the painting.
Young Woman in 1866, Édouard Manet, 1866, Oil on canvas, 89.21.3
Perhaps the most puzzling or strange of them all, Manet’s Young Woman in 1866 displays a catatonic young woman standing in a silk gown. This portrait was seen as a reply to Courbet’s Woman with a Parrot. At first, one thinks she is looking at the viewer, but she’s really not. She’s almost cross-eyed and her facial expression is one of disinterest. She’s smelling a flower and toying with a monocle and looks completely disinterested in anything going on around her. Oddest of all, standing next to her on a bird stand is a gray parrot and a partially eaten orange. She’s also floating, which further confuses the viewer as to what is going on. She seems completely bored and it makes the viewer uncomfortable with the whole composition.