Description

The Surprised Nymph (La Nymphe surprise)

  • Artist: Manet, Édouard
    Nationality Francesa
    (Francia, París, 1832 – Francia, París, 1883)
  • Date: 1861
  • Acquisition: Galería Witcomb (Buenos Aires)
  • Genre: mythological
  • Support: On canvas
  • Dimensions: 144,5 x 112,5 cm. Frame: 169,8 x 137,5 x 9,5 cm.
  • Location: Room 13 - Pintura Francesa de la segunda mitad del Siglo XIX - Preimpresionismo
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Summary The Surprised Nymph (La Nymphe surprise)

La nymphe surprise (Nymph Surprised) marks the beginning of a key period in Édouard Manet’s career and the history of modernism in French painting (1). According to Barskaya, the artist completed it and sent it to an exhibition at the Russian Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg in 1861 with the title Nymphe et satyre (Nymph and Satyr), two years prior to the Salon des Refusés exhibition and Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass) and Olympia (painted that same year, though it was sent to and accepted in the Salon des Artistes Français in 1865, both in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris). A long series of documentary and technical studies in addition to discussions regarding the possible sources of this work reveal a long, complex process of elaboration in this canvas, considered to be Manet’s first great tableau-laboratoire in which he re-elaborated models from great Italian and Dutch painting from the 16th and 17th Centuries. This work remained in the artist’s possession until he died, and there is evidence that shows that Manet believed it to be among his most important works. In 1867 he included it in the solo exhibition held in Avenue de l’Alma after having been rejected at the Exposition Universelle. It also figured, under the title Nymphe (Nymph), in eighth place in the list that Manet himself prepared in 1871 of his best 25 unsold works. Following the artist’s death, Paul Eudel mentioned the work in relation to the exhibition-sale held at the Hôtel Drouot, with the title Bethsabé au bain (Bathsheba at her Bath). In his Souvenirs de Manet published in the Revue Blanche in 1897, Antonin Proust stated that this work was originally conceived of as a large painting representing Moses Saved from the Waters, but the artist later cut the canvas, conserving only the nude figure in the foreground, which he called Nymphe surprise. This statement is further supported by consideration of several preparatory studies for the work, among them an oil sketch on wood panel measuring 35 x 46 cm (Nasjonalgalleriet, Oslo) featuring the nude figure of the nymph accompanied by another clothed female figure who appears to be combing her hair, while on the left another woman seen from behind squats down in a strange pose, apparently picking up a dark object from the waters of a riverbed. Lastly, the technical studies (X-rays, UV, IR) carried out by Juan Corradini between 1956 and 1982 in Buenos Aires reveal the existence of subjacent pentimenti that clearly link La nymphe… with the sketch from Oslo: another two feminine figures (the one on the left cut off, with the border of her dress barely visible) that coincide with those from the sketch, with slight variations in where they are positioned within the composition; on the basis of Proust’s affirmation, the sketch was titled Moses Saved from the Waters. However, Wilson-Bareau found this title to be problematic, given that there are no known iconographic precedents of a nude representation of the Pharaoh’s daughter. On the other hand, on the basis of old photographs of the painting (by Godet, 1861? and Lochard, 1883?), Tabarant sustained that the “visage d’un voyeur indiscret” (face of an indiscreet voyeur) can be found in the upper right corner of the canvas, which the artist later suppressed. This face would furthermore justify the title Nymphe et satyre with which the painting had been shown in Russia the same year it was produced. The earliest x-ray studies done by Corradini (1959 and 1979) did not reveal the presence of this satyr’s head, even though the area of the painting in which it seemed to be visible in early photos shows evidence of old overpainting. Later studies carried out in 1983 using infrared rays, again by Corradini, finally revealed the presence of the satyr’s or faun’s head amidst the foliage that had been glimpsed in the old photos. In 1975, Farwell published previously unknown notes by Edmond Bazire, who elaborated the catalog of the posthumous exhibition of Manet’s work in 1884, where he confirmed that the bronzed torso of a faun can be seen between the tree trunks in the background. It is not known with certainty, then (it has been impossible to establish by way of technical analyses) whether the suppression of that satyr’s or faun’s face was carried out by Manet himself, or by someone else after his death. In 1983 Corradini suggested the possibility that it may have been painted over by Jules and Édouard Vibert, Rudolf Leenhoff or by an early restorer.The iconographic sources for La nymphe… have also been discussed at length. Early commentaries pointed to a “Venetian influence” in this work. In his 1947 text, Tabarant mentions Giorgioni as a source. Bareau has also linked it to Veronese’s and Romanelli’s depictions of Moisés salvado… which Manet had become familiar with through prints from the Recueil Crozat in the Cabinet des Estampes at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris.The model who posed for the nude is assumed to have been Suzanne Leenhoff, the Dutch girl who taught piano to the Manet family at that time, and to whom the artist would be wed in 1863 (2). Several authors cite the motif of Susanna and the Elders as a more accurate identification of the painting’s iconographic source, not only on the basis of a possible link with the model’s real name, but above all on account of the figure’s prudish pose. It also might be a representation of Bathsheba, as Eudel had already observed in 1884. In 1932, Sterling published an incontestable source for the figure, the pose and cloths in La nymphe surprise: an etching by Vosterman reproducing a scene of Susanna and the Elders (whereabouts unknown) by Rubens. Nevertheless, in spite of the unquestionable citation of this mirror-image print, other sources continue to be named, such as Davide e Betsabea (David and Bathsheba) by Giulio Romano in the Palazzo Te, which Manet would have been familiar with by way of 17th Century French prints by Corneille le Jeune (3). It has also been associated with Rembrandt’s Bathseba met de brief van koning David (Bathsheba at her Bath) and Boucher’s Diane sortant du bain (Diana Leaving the Bath), both at the Louvre, a Susanna by Rembrandt at the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag (4) and an etching by Marcantonio Raimondi titled Ninfa e satiro (Nymph and Satyr) (5). There may well be something in La nymphe surprise from all of the sources mentioned. It was painted at a turning point in Manet’s career when, having already spent time at the Couture studio (where he made numerous copies of old master paintings), he traveled to Italy and registered with the Bibliothèque nationale de France in order to consult their Cabinet des Estampes in 1858. Using a wonderful metaphor, Théodore Duret affirmed that by accepting Manet into his studio, Thomas Couture opened the gate to the sheep pen and let the wolf in (6). Reff has pointed out the significance of the publication Histoire des peintres de toutes les écoles (The History of the Painters of All Nations) by Charles Blanc, which was distributed in periodic installments between 1849 and 1876. He thus proposes not only the importance of the collections of etchings and reproductions of works from the past in the germination of modern art, but also the simultaneity of Manet’s ambitious canvases during the 1860s with modern history writing on the art of that decade. Fried, on the other hand, advances yet further with this idea sustaining the essential role played by French texts available during Manet’s time (Blanc, but also Thoré, Théophile Silvestre and Paul Mantz) as intermediaries between his gaze and the work of artists from the past in constructing a contemporary, as well as French image of modern art that purported to be universal (7). In this sense, he also notes that a work by Fragonard, exhibited in Paris in 1860, Le billet doux (The Love Letter), should be positioned between Vosterman’s etching and La nymphe surprise. The pose is identical (although clothed) and the face bears an expression of serene complacence not found in Rubens’ Susanna.La nymphe… inaugurated the decade that Michael Fried has characterized as a moment of negotiation or “crossing of boundaries” in modernism, between Courbet’s corporal realism and the impressionists’ ocular realism, highlighting the seminal role fulfilled by the works Manet painted during these same years (8).Laura Malosetti Costa

Footnotes

1— Fried, 1996, passim.
2— Meier-Graefe, 1912.
3— Wilson-Bareau, 1986.
4— Bazin, 1932; Krauss, 1967.
5— Farwell, 1975.
6— Duret, 1902, p. 12.
7— Fried, 1996.
8— Ibid.

Bibliography

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