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An Art Lesson from the Lips of Manet Himself!


While in Venice, Manet met a young French painter, Charles Toche. One day while watching a regatta, the following conversation occured. What follows is from the book Recollections of a Picture Dealer by Ambroise Vollard published in 1936:

[ Editor: Manet is telling Toche just how he would paint the scene in front of them ]


When faced with such a distractingly complicated scene, I must first of all choose a typical incident and define my picture as if I could already see it framed. In this case the most striking features are the masts with their fluttering multi-coloured banners, the red, white, and green Italian flag, the dark swaying line of boats crowded with spectators, and the gondolas like black-and-white arrows shooting away from the horizon; then at the top of the picture, the watery horizon the marked target and the islands in the distant haze.

I would try first to work out logically the different values, in their nearer or more distant relationships, according to spatial and aerial perspective.

The lagoon mirrors the sky, and at the same time acts as a great stage for the boats and their passengers, the masts, the banners etc. It has its own particular colour, the nuances it borrows from the sky, the clouds, from crowds, from objects reflected in the water. There can be no sharp definition, no linear structure in something that is all movement; only tonal values, which, if correctly observed will constitute its true volume, its essential undelying design.

The gondolas, and other boats, with their generally dark colours and reflections, provide a base on which to set my watery stage. The figures, seated or in action, dressed in dark colours, or brilliantly vivid materials, with their parasols, hankerchiefs, and hats, appear as crenellated forms of different tonal values, providing the necessary "repoussoir" (contrast foreground-ed) and defining the specific character of the areas of water and gondolas that I see through them.

Crowds, rowers, flags, masts must be sketched in with a mosiac of coloured tones, in an attempt to convey the fleeting quality of gestures, the fluttering flags, the swaying masts.

On the horizon, right at the top, are the islands. There should be no more than a suggestion of the most distant places, veiled in the subtlest, most accurately observed tints.

Finally the sky should cover and envelop the whole scene, like an immense, shinning canopy, whose light plays over all the figures and objects.

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