WHY MANET WENT FOR BLACK ~ Posted by Rebecca Willis, March 7th 2013

The fact that Manet did not throw in his lot with the Impressionists—he refused to take part in the 1874 show that later became known as the “First Impressionist Exhibition”—has not stopped a constant rumble of debate about whether he was one or not. Having just seen the exhibition “Manet: Portraying Life” at the Royal Academy, I am tempted to conclude for once and for all that he was not, and the reason for that is his use of black paint.

Black was anathema to Impressionists with a capital “I”, who believed that light was broken up into colours and achieved greys and dark tones by mixing complementary colours. Manet used black—which is actually the absence of colour—as a colour in its own right. A striking number of Manet’s works have large, flat areas of black, which take on an almost abstract quality, like the graphic darkness of women’s elaborate hairstyles in the Japanese paintings he admired: Leon’s coat, for example, in “Luncheon in the Studio”; the riding habits worn by some of his sitters; the men’s frock coats in “Déjeuner sur l’herbe” and (with top hats) in “Music in the Tuileries”. The black notes chime through these and a huge number of the other paintings in this show.

His famous portrait of Berthe Morisot (above) is juxtaposed with another powerful one of her in mourning. The backdrop, the brushwork, the sitter’s complexion and the emotional impact of these two images are very different. But her clothing is not. Manet’s people seemed to wear a lot of black. This thought sent me back to a fascinating book, “Colour: Making and Using Dyes and Pigments”, which I’d used for research when I was writing about wearing black. It explains that natural black dyes were originally obtained by mixing a very dark red-brown with a dark blue, but that “in the 18th century, improved black dyes were made based on indigo and the tinctorial woods of logwood and sumac. These arrived just in time for the 19th century, in which black clothing, with its connotations of morality and modesty, was much prized.”

Perhaps deep, intense blacks seemed very modern at the time that Manet was painting: they were definitely a sign of the times when it came to clothing. Certainly I can’t help wondering what his paintings would have been like in a different sartorial era. The history of portrait painting and the history of fashion are always twined around each other. If he’d been born a hundred years earlier, or later, would Manet have found black quite so fascinating and would his portraits have been so characterised by the the sharply delineated black areas they contain?

Rebecca Willis is associate editor of Intelligent Life. Her recent posts for the Editors’ Blog include Blankets don’t chip easily and Let there be darkness