The Old Musician by Edouard Manet, 1862.

Extrapolation: The Old Musician

The old musician sat amongst the beggars. Many passersby on the afternoon streets would certainly make no distinction, and call his playing for coin begging as well. For him this was respite though. Sunday among the despised. He would play among these people for a time and forget about coin. Much like the saying “you can’t bullshit a bullshitter” there isn’t much use in “begging a beggar.” Among them he could play whatever pleased him, the childhood favorites of his homeland, the dirges, the sad songs, things the people on the street wouldn’t pay a soda-cracker to hear.

On the streets the shortest path to coin was all. Here, among the beggars, he could be welcomed rather than tolerated, a violinist rather than a fiddler. The girls and the children would enjoy it, though the men would need more drink, drink they didn’t have, to slacken their scowls. Music alone wasn’t nearly enough to salve their problems. The man in the top-hat had only just recently found himself among their number. He clung to that hat the way a tick clung to a mongrel’s skin, as though a few inches of good quality felt were all that stood between him and final heartbreak. Today the old musician would play for him. He’d play a bit from “The Beggar’s Opera,” a piece he’d learned while in England all those years ago. Yes, today he’d play for the man in the top hat but he’d sing for himself-

Through all the Employments of Life
Each Neighbour abuses his Brother;
Whore and Rogue they call Husband and Wife:
All Professions be-rogue one another:
The Priest calls the Lawyer a Cheat,
The Lawyer be-knaves the Divine:
And the Statesman, because he’s so great,
Thinks his Trade as honest as mine.

Facts: The Old Musician

From a 1984 edition of the hardcover devoted to the collections of The National Gallery in Washington-

“The principal pleasure to be gained from Manet comes from the beauty of his brushwork. He mixed on his palette the exact tone he needed and with swift and certain dexterity delineated on the canvas each area of light and shadow. In The Old Musician this virtuosity of handling can be seen most clearly in the trenchant strokes that define the folds in the shirt and trousers of the boy with the straw hat, or in the more caressing feather touch on the shawl of the girl holding the baby.

Manet’s method of direct painting caused him to suppress the transitional tones of modeling which particularly suggest volume. Like Velazquez, who was also a master of brushwork, he chose an illumination which would flatten form as much as possible. Thus the light falls directly on the figures from behind the artist’s head, and the shadows are reduced to a minimum. Through this arbitrary elimination of shadow Manet was able to state local color more freely. He attained, especially in such early works as The Old Musician, the most subtle harmonies of yellowish white and faded blue, here contrasted with warm browns and blacks and soft grays. This color scheme was as far as possible from the high intensities and broken colors of the Impressionists, which he adopted at the end of his life.

For Manet, in spite of a strong instinct for the traditional, became a leader of the Impressionists’ revolt. The public attacked his pictures, as they attacked the other Impressionists, but less because of his method of painting than because of a certain outre quality in his subject matter. In The Old Musician, for instance, what is the meaning of the brooding octogenarian on the extreme right, who is bisected so unconventionally by the frame? Perhaps he was put there simply to balance the composition, for Theodore Duret, who knew Manet well, said he painted this troupe of beggars merely because it pleased him to preserve a record of them and for no other reason. And yet one senses a significance which just escapes, a hidden meaning which is baffling. In Manet’s pictures these recurrent and tantalizing affectations infuriated his contemporaries and were in part the reason he never attained the popular admiration which he so desperately desired.”

07.23. filed under: art. !. fiction. history. lies. 1