ART D’oeuvre: Manet on the Menu

Happy New Year! To help kick off 2014, I thought to introduce a new blog series, entitled “ART d’oeuvre”, where I will be sharing individual artwork by a diverse range of artists that have particularly captured my attention and merit a short (bite-sized) discussion through an art historical lens. ART d’oeuvre, like its famous culinary cousin, the hors d’oeuvre, will hopefully provide you with enough knowledge to quell that art hunger, but will also whet your appetite to seek out more works of a particular genre, style or artist. For this first publication, I will introduce Edouard Manet’s Masked Ball at the Opera currently on show at the National Gallery of Art (in Washington, D.C.), part of their permanent collection. Let’s dig in!


Having recently discovered this gorgeous painting quietly hiding amongst the Monet and Renoir tableaus housed in the French Impressionists’ wing, I was immediately struck by the depth of space achieved by this piece. The sea of men donning black suits and top hats dominating the scene are layered from front to back conveying to the viewer, a very full, packed room. This bustling crowd of Parisian society, create a very busy effect on canvas that is transferred to the viewer. My eyes were darting from one side of the painting to the other, taking in the multitude of patrons, gentlemen, ladies and entertainers that grace this piece as there is no focal point. An overwhelming feeling of activity and liveliness is clearly conveyed by Manet.

In addition to the hecticness, much of the painting is framed by scenes that are just edged out of view. On the left, there is a clown-like figure with his back to the viewer (facing the crowd) and only half of his body is included in the painting. The pattern of his dress,  multicolored diamond shapes and style are reminiscent of another great French painter, Jean-Antoine Watteau, who famously portrayed harlequins, pierrots and clowns in his pieces from the late 17th and early 18th century drawn from the theater. Also, outlining the top of this scene, is a white balcony with feet dangling off the edges. Although these scenes are cut short with only snippets of detail included, it does let one’s imagination take over – what types of people are gathered on the second floor? Manet by focusing on a select group of people in the opera’s main gathering space, but yet including only partial views of surrounding scenes, creates a feeling of curiosity. The subject themselves reflect a snap shot of Parisian high society dating from the 19th century.

Upon closer observation, what caught my eye are the hints of color linked to the entertainers and scandalous women (not exactly bourgeois) in the scene. The use of color seems to highlight the risque interactions that perhaps are not in keeping with the etiquette of the time. For example, a woman scantily dressed in blue and yellow cullotes with a white sleeveless chemise at the forefront of the painting, has her arms around an elegantly dressed man. She has not even bothered concealing her own identity by wearing a mask (as would be expected at a masked ball). There appears to be a mixing of two worlds – the sophisticated, more gentrified class and those who identify as pleasure seekers (the likes of performers and disreputable ladies). Although the painting is dominated with men draped in European 19th century garb, there are a few gentlewomen peppered in the scene also dressed in dark hues, sporting black masks. The contrast of colors and classes, no doubt make this a rather interesting piece.

Holly knows art. If you enjoyed Edouard Manet’s Masked Ball at the Opera, I suggest you also look at these paintings for an additional serving of art:

Holly’s Art Table d’Hote: 
Le dejeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass): Like Manet’s painting style? Highly controversial for its time, Le dejeuner sur l’herbe remains one of Manet’s most memorable, popular pieces, part of the Musee d’Orsay‘s exceptional collection in Paris.
Luncheon of the Boating Party by Renoir, housed at the magnificent Phillips Collection in the nation’s capital. Also depicts a social scene from the late 19th century as well as spatial depth created by people and objects. A very lovely piece with an abundance of detail.

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