The Intrepid Manet-Degas Dialogue at the Musée d’Orsay*


Michel De Saint-Cheron

   The Musée d’Orsay boasted an unconventional exhibition, far from any topicality, and with no anniversary in sight. It staged a confrontation between Manet (1832-1883) and Degas (1834-1917), legendary friends and rivals, separated by so much except for their common passion for painting. Through their works and their masters, we encounter the Spain of Vélasquez and Goya, the Italy of Titian, Giorgione, Mantegna, Lippi, and much more.    Laurence des Cars, president of the Louvre Museum, is the exhibit’s general commissioner, with Stéphane Guégan and Isolde Pludermacher in their respective capacities as scientific advisor and general curator at the Musée d’Orsay. Thanks to magnificent loans from the National Gallery in London and the Metropolitan Museum in New York, where the exhibition was presented late in 2023, the artists’ complicity, their friendship but also their quarrels and their more fundamental oppositions were exhibited through paintings and drawings as well as in copies of the old masters.    Among the legendary quarrels between the two painters, everyone knows of the one that followed Degas’s gift to Manet of his painting of Manet and his wife. Manet cut his wife at the piano out of the painting with a penknife because she was “disfigured.”1 “An act of rare symbolic violence”, notes Isolde Pludermacher in her chapter “The Enigma of a Relationship” (Catalog, p. 17). Edgar Degas, learning of his friend’s crime, rushed to take back the mutilated painting, only to return it to Manet somewhat later. One can imagine how deeply offended Degas was. It led him to return to Manet his painting Les Prunes. Manet quickly sold it, to the great displeasure of Degas, as it happens. The curators have brought the two paintings together.2

   A thrilling confrontation, this mise en abîme “seek(s) to understand each artist through the other by examining both their similarities, their differences, even their divergences.” Let me paraphrase Julius Meier-Graefe: “With Manet, we see the world through his eyes”, something we also learn about Degas in the particularly rich catalog published by Gallimard,3 where we find remarkable essays like “Presences of absence – Degas, Manet, Valéry” by Stéphane Guégan, “Encounters around etching” by Ashley E. Dunn, curator of Drawings at the Metropolitan Museum and “Manet-Degas, hyphens” by Victor Claas (INHA, Paris), among other others.    The tragic dimension in Degas, which is found mainly in his brothel scenes and in a few women’s faces, such as those in Scene of War in the Middle Ages (1863-65), is much more striking and present in Manet, even in his Christ with Angels (1864), which intrigued Degas and Courbet alike. This tragic force, to which Manet adds provocation, transcends everything else.

   Both men witnessed serious political crises, but Degas, having straddled the 19th century until the First World War, the end of which he did not see, felt the full force of the Dreyfus Affair. He became so ardent an anti-Dreyfusard that Julie Manet recorded of her visit to his home on January 20, 1898: “We went to extend an invitation to M. Degas, but we didn’t because we found him in such a state against the Jews that we left without asking him anything” (cat. p. 251).    It’s worth quoting Victor Claas’s comments about the German-Jewish painter and collector Max Liebermann’s acquisition of a Manet seascape, which he hung next to Dancers with a Chair (1895, his first Degas oil painting, purchased in 1898); Claas writes: “Degas’ well-documented anti-Semitism and anti-Dreyfusism, the republican Manet’s painted reflections on exile and freedom, the tastes of the Berlin Jewish painter Liebermann (later persecuted by the Nazi regime and whose collection was evacuated and then dispersed): a symbolic triangulation unfolds here that is too astonishing not to be mentioned. Some would see it as yet another dark variation on modern tragedy” (p. 224).    The major writers and poets to have known one or both artists are Mallarmé, Baudelaire, Gautier, Zola and Valéry. To these we can add the great Clemenceau “who brought Olympia into the Louvre,” as Malraux reminds us in The Imaginary Museum, the Malraux who, in his writings on art,4 devotes a great deal of space to Manet as one of the fathers of modern painting.    Beginning in 1859 and for five consecutive years, Manet reigned supreme at the Salon. At the 1865 Salon, he exhibited Jesus Insulted by Soldiers (Art Institute of Chicago) and Olympia. The outcry from public and critics alike scarred the painter. Degas presented Scene of War in the Middle Ages, a painting marked by a “violent outburst, both sadistic and scabrous”, according to Stéphane Guégan (catalog, p. 50), in which soldiers aim their arrows at poor naked women tied to trees, trying to escape or writhing in pain; and no one batted an eye. Then the 1869 Salon featured The Balcony in which Berthe Morisot embodies the “femme fatale” (letter from Berthe Morisot to Edma Pontillon, op. cit. p. 78).    The subject of women occupies a large part of this exhibit. In her very last letter dated March 1, 1895 and written on the eve of her death, Berthe Morisot wrote to her daughter: “My darling Julie, I love you in dying as I shall love you in death, […] please tell Monsieur Degas that if he founds his museum, he should choose a Manet” (p. 76). Manet had died twelve years earlier. In contrast to Manet, Isolde Pludermacher sees in Degas “a misogynist,” based on his representations of the female nude (p. 152). And indeed, his paintings display often unattractive women who are little more than commodities for the satisfaction of male desire. The poor girl in the oil painting Interior –not Rape, as it has often erroneously been called—who turns her back to us, or those in the painting The Client, even the woman of The Tub have nothing of the feminine affirmation Manet gives the women of Olympia, Nana, Berthe Morisot with a Fan, The Balcony, or Baudelaire’s Mistress. If The Balcony quite rightly fascinates us, Isolde Pludermacher prefers in this instance to compare rather than contrast it with Degas’ Woman with Binoculars, which enables us to discern the similar strangeness in the faces. Of course, Berthe Morisot’s face is rendered by Manet with the force of mystery, to which the young woman’s far-off gaze adds further gravity, whereas Degas conceals his young woman’s features and gaze, hiding them behind her binoculars. Olympia, on the other hand, gazes distractedly at her visitor or customer, modestly covering her sex with her hand, while Titian’s Venus of Urbino gazes sensually at the viewer. Like Cézanne, Malraux saw in Olympia the birth of modern art, the moment when the painter ceases to please, the end of the idealization of women, the end of what he called the unreal. Cézanne had said, and Malraux quotes him: “Our Renaissance dates from Olympia” (p.46).    A final word on how Degas and Manet were for a time also history painters, Degas, as already noted, with War Scene from the Middle Ages, Manet with The Execution. While Degas indulges in the exhibition of women whose clothes have been ripped off to further humiliate them before they are slaughtered, Manet vies with Goya in a modern Third of May, 1808. More impressive still is his Dead Toreador (1864), painted three years before The Execution. In this famous painting, Manet emphasizes the contrast between the black of the man’s garment, his gaiters and his white shirt, his right hand resting on his chest, his left hand still holding the pink, not red, scarf he was waving but a moment before at the bull. In The Execution there is the same clash of colors between the emperor Maximilien’s white shirt, covered not with blood but with gunpowder smoke, and his black trousers.    These two great masters of modern painting herald a new era in which the artist becomes “the eye of God”, the accusing eye, as Goya’s had been, in Master Eckhart’s expression (cf. Stéphane Guégan and Isolde Pludermacher, Œil pour œil Manet - Degas, Gallimard, p. 68-69). The combined works of these two giants of painting tell us something crucial about the human condition, and this exhibition is a credit to the Musée d’Orsay and the Metropolitan Museum of New York.

*Review of Manet/Degas, The Musée d'Orsay (March 28 to July 23, 2023) and The Metropolitan Museum of Art ( September 24, 2023–January 7, 2024)



1. The original reads “enlaidie”, literally “uglified,” a term too strong to render by the sole adjective “ugly.” (Translator’s note)

2. Ironically, ten years after Manet’s death, it was Degas who reassembled the four dispersed fragments of The Execution of Maximilien (see below) that have since been reunited on the canvas exhibited in The National Gallery. (translator’s note).

3. Catalog: Manet Degas, Musée d’Orsay/Gallimard, under the direction of Laurence des Cars, Stéphane Guégan and Isolde Pludermacher, 270 pages.

4. André Malraux, Œuvres Complètes Vols. IV et V, Voices of Silence and Metamorphosis of the Gods. Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, Gallimard. Subsequent Malraux references are to these works.