In a recent article in ARTnews, Jack Flam analyzed Manet’s, “The Luncheon” in the light of knowing that Manet painted this soon after an important monograph had been printed about the Dutch artist Johann Vermeer.
“The Luncheon” has always been considered enigmatic. What is known about the picture is that the boy front and center is Leon Leenhoff. But the clarity stops there. To begin with, who is Leon Leenhoff?
After the death of his father in 1862, Manet married Suzanne Leenhoff in 1863. Leenhoff was a Dutch-born piano teacher of Manet’s age with whom he had been romantically involved for approximately ten years. Leenhoff initially had been employed by Manet’s father, Auguste, to teach Manet and his younger brother piano. She also may have been Auguste’s mistress. In 1852, Leenhoff gave birth, out of wedlock, to a son, Leon Koella Leenhoff.
It is about this time that Manet had taken up with Suzanne. Could it be that he did so to hide the real paternity of Leon? That of his father? Could this have saved the family from scandal in some way? It is interesting to note that he did not marry Suzanne until after his father died. Exactly when did his father’s affair with Suzanne end? Before or after Manet took up with her?
Manet never claimed paternity of Leon. In fact, Suzanne was required for many years to pass him off as her brother. Yet it is far more likely that Leon was Manet’s half brother.
So what do we have in this painting? Leon in the middle in a summer costume and a boater hat. Behind him on either side are a man and a maid. Behind them is a map reminiscent of those in the background of Vermeer.
On the table we see what I had always presumed was lunch, but on closer examination, is more likely to be a still life.
The knife and partially peeled lemon appear in many of Manet’s still lifes, as well as in a portrait of Leon.
On the chair, we have other accouterments of the studio — a helmet and sword, for example. Leon posed with the sword in an earlier painting.
While Manet’s knowledge of Vermeer is not widely acknowledged, his deep and sustained involvement with the work of Valesquez is well documented. Could we be looking at another “Las Meninas”?
Is Leon, in fact, looking at the artist, Manet, at work as the artist regards him and the two people behind him? And might these two people be standing in for Leon’s real parents — Suzanne as the maid (as she was the piano teacher) and Manet’s father as the man. The man reaches behind Leon toward the maid.
In the center of the painting is a silver pitcher held up by the maid. Could the pitcher serve the same purpose the mirror does in “Las Meninas”? I looked at it under a magnifier to see if I could see the artist reflected in the surface. While I didn’t find that, I found what looked like a broken heart and, not a portrait of Manet, but evidence of him in the form of an “M” a signature not unlike Vermeer’s “V”.
In this configuration we have the absent artist (as he does not appear in the painting), holding center stage and the focal point of all in the painting, with the exception of the man, who looks at the maid. A deft family portrait, if ever there was one. And one where the artist assumes the position of the King.