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.

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-centre. 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 fifer’s.

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 recognisable 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 which 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.

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