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Art Review

Dawn of ‘The Dead Toreador’

One of Manet’s finest is now hanging at the Worcester Art Museum

Édouard Manet’s “The Dead Toreador’’ began its life as part of a larger canvas, “Incident at a Bullfight.’’ It’s on loan to the Worcester Art Museum. Édouard Manet’s “The Dead Toreador’’ began its life as part of a larger canvas, “Incident at a Bullfight.’’ It’s on loan to the Worcester Art Museum. (National Gallery of Art)
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / October 1, 2010

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One of the world’s most famous paintings has just arrived at the Worcester Art Museum. Installed in a room that includes superb paintings by Claude Monet, Paul Signac, Anders Zorn, and Gustave Courbet, it looks entirely at home.

But don’t start getting used to it: “The Dead Toreador,’’ as the picture by Édouard Manet is known, is on loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and will return there at the end of March 2011.

The loan is the National Gallery’s way of saying thank you to Worcester for agreeing to lend its great Gauguin, “The Brooding Woman,’’ which has just arrived in London for “Gauguin: Maker of Myth,’’ a major exhibition at Tate Modern that will travel to Washington next year.

Worcester is making the most of it, billing the borrowed painting as an exhibition unto itself (it will be complemented by Manet and Goya prints from Worcester’s collection, but not until December).

And why not? It is devastatingly good, one of the finest things Manet painted; a nerve-wracking instance of poison and its antidote administered with the same silver spoon, the same soft brush. At once sensational and austere, jolting and serene, macabre and pristine, it’s as fresh and unsettling as the day it was painted.

“The Dead Toreador’’ began its life as part of a bigger canvas, “Incident at a Bullfight.’’ When it was shown in Paris at the Salon of 1864, the painting was ridiculed — not just by the critics, but by caricaturists who openly parodied it, re-drawing the figures as wooden toys and childish doodles.

The problem, it seems, was the confusing scale of the image, which many took — perhaps correctly — as evidence of Manet’s ineptitude. The dead toreador, jutting ominously into the viewer’s space, took up the foreground of “Incident at a Bullfight.’’ Just behind him, Manet painted the bull and three smaller toreadors, one of them climbing the high wall at the far edge of the ring.

The critics were flummoxed. One of them, Edmond About, described the scene as a “wooden bullfighter, killed by a horned rat.’’ “Oh perspective! Take these blows!’’ moaned another. And two others, Théophile de Gautier and Hector de Callias, described the bull as “microscopic,’’ and the toreadors further back as too large: they “appear to be laughing at this little bull which they could crush under the heels of their pumps,’’ wrote de Callias.

Poor Manet. This was the kind of thing he was already getting used to. His earlier — and still, admittedly, rather bizarre-looking — “Mademoiselle V. in the Costume of an Espada,’’ which had similar spatial (not to say sexual and symbolic) ambiguities — had bemused rather than offended the critics. But as his work began capturing the attention of a younger generation of artists, he was accused in the press of senseless provocation and technical clumsiness.

It is likely that Manet’s flattened space and awkward perspective in both “Incident’’ and “Mademoiselle V.’’ were deliberate responses to Japanese prints. He probably cultivated the dissonance between foreground and background as a way of heightening the patently fictional character of these pictures. (Manet, who would not visit Spain until the following year, would have been the last person to try to convince you he had seen a bullfight if he hadn’t.)

But he also accepted that his experiments didn’t always come off. And although he kept to his course under even the most relentless abuse (it only got worse the following year when he showed “Olympia’’), he was never deaf to people’s objections. And so it was that, sometime after showing “Incident’’ at the 1864 Salon, he took a knife to the canvas and cut it up.

Manet salvaged two works from the operation: “The Bullfight,’’ which shows the three background toreadors (it now hangs in the Frick Collection in New York) and “The Dead Toreador.’’

For a year or two, he continued to make adjustments to both of them. He painted out vestiges of the bull that had shared space with the dead toreador and distilled it to the haunting image that hangs in Worcester today.

It was the right thing to do, as the painting’s subsequent fate bears out: It was awarded a silver medal at an exhibition in Le Havre in 1868. In 1872, the critic Armand Silvestre called it “a masterpiece of drawing, and the most complete symphony in black major ever attempted.’’ (It’s fun to think of its effect on Whistler, who was in Manet’s widening circle, and about to embark on his own series of “symphonies,’’ “nocturnes,’’ and “harmonies.’’) And Henri Matisse, more than 60 years later, described “The Dead Toreador’’ as “one of the most beautiful Manets.’’

There’s no doubt that Matisse, who handled the color black masterfully, was responding in part to the richness of the toreador’s jet-black outfit and Manet’s exceptionally brisk, clean handling, all of it set off by an indeterminate brown background straight out of Velázquez. But colors do not exist in isolation, and your eyes can’t drink in this picture without your lashes feeling the tickle of Manet’s pink. The blush in the dead man’s sash, in particular, is too subtle to come across in reproduction, as is the deep maroon of the blood pooling under his shoulder.

And that reminds us that this picture — oddly immaculate though it is — is about more than just shapes and consummate paint handling. It’s a representation — and quite a convincing one — of a dead man. The pose may have been borrowed from “Dead Soldier,’’ a painting then thought to have been by Velázquez (Manet was infatuated with all things Spanish in those years), but the artist’s friend Charles Baudelaire insisted Manet had never seen it.

Scholars struggling to reconcile Manet’s republican views with his oddly inexpressive pictures have long argued over whether, as an image of death, “The Dead Toreador’’ is not too clinical. Art historian Linda Nochlin said it is devoid of meaningful human feeling. But it was painted in an era of sentimentality and a kind of engulfing rhetoric of pathos, heroism, courage, and sacrifice — and what is bullfighting if not a theatrical realization of such rhetoric?

Manet rejected all that. He was under the spell of his hero Velázquez, whose lack of outward signs of empathy must have felt like an antidote to the dominant rhetoric of Romanticism, and even Realism. With “The Dead Toreador,’’ he pulled off the feat of producing a truly archetypal image that is at once highly theatrical and poker-faced, ravishing and reserved. The tension that results is electrifying.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

ÉDOUARD MANET’S THE DEAD TOREADOR At: Worcester Art Museum, Worcester. Through March 31, 2011. 508-799-4406, www.worcesterart.org