The Fifer: Édouard Manet

The Fifer: Édouard Manet

The Fifer is an 1866 oil painting by Édouard Manet inspired by a Spanish regimental fifer or Flautist whom he had seen in 1865 when visiting the country. The painting is also known as the Young Flautist and is painted in a Realist-Impressionist style.

Analysis of Manet’s The Fifer

Spain was also Manet’s source for the peculiar spacelessness of this picture. He likely derived it from the monochrome backgrounds of Diego Vélazquez’s portraits observed at the Museo del Prado. See the Portrait of Pablo de Valladolid (c. 1637) for an excellent example.

The fifer which Édouard Manet saw playing in the band of the Spanish Imperial Guard appears in his professional livery: blood-red trousers with a black stripe, a white sash over a tar-black jacket with gold-like buttons, and a black cap with red and gold partitions in the French style.

He is depicted in the act of playing a baroque flute while looking forward and off-center. On his left flank, another instrument resembling a bassoon is foisted.

As to the young man’s face, it should be noted that as well as possibly getting a Spanish regimental fifer to pose for him, Manet likely relied on models once he got back to Paris. According to some analysts, Victorine Meurent (she of the scandalous Olympia) may have been among those who posed for this picture, as some of the lineaments of her face can supposedly be detected in the fifers.

The figure is (with the significant exception of the hands) entirely composed of solid areas of single-pigment paint. A source of light to the right slants the few shadows leftward, but there is little development of gradations or shapes. The fifer’s blood-red trousers, the most uniform area of the canvas, dominate one-half of the visual space.

Because the entirety of the place in which the fifer is supposedly standing has been dissolved into a minimally graduated expanse of gray, it is unclear whether he stands on a pavement with his back to a wall or where the two surfaces are parted.

It is therefore difficult, in the absence of reference points, to gauge the fifer’s true height. He could be a young man in his twenties wearing remarkably large trousers, or he could be a teenager, little more than a child.

Like many other of Manet’s paintings, The Fifer received a very negative reaction from the critics and the public. It was rejected by the jury of the 1866 Salon and induced Manet to set up a self-funded exhibition at the Éxoposition Universelle of 1867. Public opinion indicted The Fifer’s lack of elaboration and the total absence of recognizable space around him.

Vélazquez’s precedent, by comparison, had mostly involved busts of interesting figures, when commoners, and great elaboration of detail in the case of full-size figures — all of whom were, in that case, identifiable.

Manet’s Fifer signals a fascination with the liveliness of ceremonial uniforms and decontextualized and therefore objectified human figures. It resembles the kind of figurines that the popular press will begin employing in the late 19th century to liven up its pages. These are figures which draw interest precisely because they are set up without anything else in the portrait laying claim to the viewer’s attention.

Édouard Manet’s The Fifer can be found in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, France.

The Fife

A fifer, also known as a fife player, is a musician who plays the fife, which is a small, high-pitched wind instrument. The fife is a member of the flute family and is similar in appearance to a flute but shorter and with fewer finger holes. It is typically made of wood, although modern fifes can also be made of metal.

The fife has a distinct piercing sound and is known for its bright and lively tone. It is often used in military and marching bands, which will be what we are observing in this painting.

The fife is a versatile instrument that can play a wide range of melodies and can be heard over long distances due to its high pitch. Its compact size and portability made it suitable for outdoor performances and military formations, where it could carry the melody and provide a marching rhythm.

Historically, fifers played an important role in military communication during battles. They would use specific tunes or signals to convey commands and relay messages to the soldiers on the battlefield. This allowed for coordinated movements and formations.

Édouard Manet in Spain

While Édouard Manet himself did not travel extensively to Spain, he had a deep admiration for Spanish art and drew inspiration from Spanish masters such as Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Goya.

Manet’s interest in Spanish art can be seen in his works that exhibit certain stylistic and thematic elements reminiscent of Spanish painting. For example, his use of bold brushwork, dramatic lighting, and simplified forms, often seen in works like “The Execution of Emperor Maximilian” (1867-1869) and “The Dead Toreador” (1864), reflects the influence of Spanish painters.

One of Manet’s most famous works, “Olympia” (1863), caused controversy when it was first exhibited. The painting, depicting a reclining nude woman, drew comparisons to Titian Venus of Urbino and Velázquez’s The Rokeby Venus. The bold and confrontational gaze of the female subject in “Olympia” echoed the assertiveness seen in Spanish art.

Manet’s fascination with Spanish culture extended beyond the visual arts. He was an avid reader and collector of Spanish literature, particularly the works of Miguel de Cervantes and his renowned novel “Don Quixote.” Manet found inspiration in the themes of chivalry, honor, and the human condition depicted in these literary works.

Manet’s engagement with Spanish art and culture also influenced his interactions with other artists. He was a close friend of the Spanish painter and sculptor, Mariano Fortuny, and admired his vibrant use of color and light. Manet’s exchanges with Fortuny and other Spanish artists contributed to a fruitful cross-cultural dialogue and exchange of ideas.

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