Manet’s Philosophers from the Art Institute of Chicago

In 1865, Édouard Manet (1832–1883) traveled to Spain to “see all those beautiful things and seek the counsel of maestro Velázquez,” as he wrote to a friend, later declaring “the philosophers of Velázquez” to be “astounding pieces” that were “alone worth the journey.” Indeed, Diego Velázquez’s paintings of Aesop and Menippus, both c. 1638, would provide a model for Manet, whose guiding artistic ambition was to relate art historical tradition to contemporary life.

Shortly before and after his trip to Spain, Manet painted three of his own “philosophers,” which, along with an earlier painting of an absinthe drinker, were loosely grouped as a series when he sold them to his dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, in 1872. The works depict disheveled, down-and-out male figures, all of whom would have been legible urban types to viewers of the mid-19th century. Portraying the men at nearly life size against an indecipherable dark background, Manet borrowed Velázquez’s format and updated it to offer a modern equivalent.

This special installation reunites three of Manet’s Philosophers for the first time since the artist’s major retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1966-7: The Norton Simon’s Ragpicker, c. 1865–70, and two paintings on loan from the Art Institute, Beggar with Oysters (Philosopher) and Beggar with a Duffle Coat (Philosopher), both dated 1865/67. Together, these richly resonant works reveal Manet at his most provocative, harnessing the authority of an established style to convey dignity on a class of people overlooked by French society.

This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and Humanities.