Another look at Manet and Vermeer


Johannes Vermeer, c. 1669–70 ,Oil on canvas, 24.5 cm × 21 cm (9.6 in × 8.3 in), Louvre, Paris


Artist Christopher Benson and I were comparing notes about Manet and he mentioned seeing Vermeer’s “The Lacemaker”  in Manet’s portrait of his parents that is in the Musee d’Orsay.  Having read Jack Flam’s article in Artnews about the great monograph on Vermeer published in the 1870s and its influence on Manet, I was surprised that Flam didn’t mention this connection. This painting was painted too early to have been influenced by the monograph, but “The Lacemaker” is in the Louvre, where Manet undoubtedly studied it. And it would also indicate Manet’s interest in Vermeer.


Edouard Manet, M and Mme Auguste Manet, The Painter’s Parents, circa 1860s

What Christopher was seeing was the similarity in the handling of the yarn in the basket of Manet’s mother and Vermeer’s Lacemaker. I had never noticed this connection, but the minute you examine the details, it seems obvious.


Vermeer, “The Lacemaker” detail

manet-parents-thread -detail

Manet, “Portrait of his Parents”, detail


In Vermeer’s piece the use of a camera obscura influenced the in and out of focus quality of his work.  While Manet was painting, photography was certainly in use, and was, in fact, used by several of the Impressionists, most notably by Degas.  There is no evidence that I am aware of that Manet resorted to such devices.  Here it seems more likely that he is “quoting” the handling in Vermeer.  The composition doesn’t seem to refer to Vermeer, although of all the Vermeer’s, it is his religious painting  “In the House of Mary and Martha” that seems most like the Manet.


Vermeer, “In the House of Mary and Martha”


Christopher and I both enjoy searching for what I call “artist DNA”, the lines of influence that not only go from one artist to another, but between works of art that are at times separated by centuries.

Christopher Benson will be having a retrospective at Cushing Memorial Building on the museum grounds at 76 Bellevue Ave. in Newport, Rhode Island. The show runs from September 29th. I am sure that you will find plenty of “artist DNA” in his work!


Christopher Benson, “Tiverton Interior”

Books of Interest:

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Manet, Vermeer, Valesquez and the boy in “The Luncheon”

Manet - Luncheon

Manet, “The Luncheon, 1868

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.


Vermeer, “The Art of Painting”

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.


Manet, “Still Life with Salmon”


Manet-still life with brioche

Manet, “Still Life with Brioche and Lemon”, 1873



Manet, “Fish and Oysters”, 1864



Manet, “Portrait of Leon Leenhoff”

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.

Manet-Boy with a Sword

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”?


Valesques, “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.

manet-pitcherIn 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.