Manet (23 January 1832 – 30 April 1883) was a French Modernist painter often referred to as the father of modernism. He was a crucial figure in the change from Realism to Impressionism and was close friends with other pivotal figures of the time such as Renoir, Monet and Degas, meeting the latter as early as 1859, when the pair would be found together copying paintings in the Louvre as practice. Publicly, Manet was a divisive figure. He was rejected year after year by the Paris Salons, a professional art society which was seen as the quickest way for artists to obtain recognition. The Paris Salon first gave Manet recognition for The Spanish Singer (below) in 1861 but then steadily rejected his submissions. This was perhaps compounded by Manet’s scandalous 1863 painting Déjeuner sur l’herbe, which depicted a nude woman enjoying breakfast with two fully clothed men while a second is returning from a bath in a nearby stream, also not wearing very much. This and Olympia, a painting depicting a prostitute waiting for her client, nude, also caused considerable controversy. Together, these two paintings are seen as a watershed moment which marked the beginning of modern art.
By 1867, when his submissions were rejected both by the Paris Salon and the Exposition Universelle, Manet constructed a pavilion opposite the street of the latter in Paris, where his pictures were displayed for all to see. This was the same year Boy Blowing Bubbles was created.
Édouard Manet—the eldest son of an official in the French Ministry of Justice—had early hopes of becoming a naval officer. After twice failing the training school’s entrance exam, the teenager instead went to Paris to pursue a career in the arts. There he studied with Thomas Couture and diligently copied works at the Musée du Louvre. Met Museum
Boy Blowing Bubbles was painted in 1867. It’s subject matter is 15 year old Léon Koelin-Leenhoff, the illegitimate son of Manet’s future wife, Dutch pianist Suzanne Leenhoff. The boy may have been fathered by Manet himself, but this is the subject matter for an entirely new post. I love this painting. The nearly monochrome palette and dark background are almost a love letter to the Masters which preceded Manet, such as Murillo, Frans Hals and even Rembrandt, more on the latter below. I enjoy the free and direct style of this piece. The central subject is clearly defined, the contrast between the dark background and his light clothing propel him forward in a delightful way. This painting is consistent with Manet’s Realist desire to paint modern life.
The clothing is modern, by the standards of the time, and Léon is blowing a bubble of soap, a sign of brevity of life. This seemingly strange comparison is symptomatic of the Homo Bulla Est concept (man is bubble). This concept holds that while a person (homo) may look very solid and substantial, their life is as fleeting as a bubble (bulla), insubstantial, and completely fragile (History of Bubbles). These bubbles are most commonly seen in Vanitas paintings, loosely translated from Latin as the meaninglessness of earthly life and the transient nature of vanity. A great example of this for me is the 1663 painting by Karel Dujardin, Boy Blowing Soap Bubbles, below. This is so wonderfully camp that I think I will have a fridge magnet made out of it. The child is standing on a bubble on a shell, doubly reinforcing the transience of his life. The surrealist element of the shell surfing is meant to remind us of the transience of happiness and the brevity of human life. The fabric, reflective bubbles, clouds, waves, and the depth of the perspective make this a winning painting for me. This is perhaps a silly painting but it is undeniably fun and depicted beautifully.
… the artist’s first champion, Émile Zola, had published a lengthy and glowing article about Manet. “The future is his,” Zola proclaimed. He insisted that the much-maligned Déjeuner sur l’herbe (which was included in Manet’s 1867 exhibition) would one day hang in the Louvre. Zola proved prophetic; it took almost seventy years, but the painting entered the collection of the Louvre (now Musée d’Orsay) in 1934. Met Museum
Finally, I would like to highlight one final bubble painting which I have stumbled upon during my research for this post. Cupid Blowing Soap Bubbles by Rembrandt, painted in 1634, serves as an early example of the Hommo Bulla Est concept. Cupid was the son of Mercury and, in Greek mythology, represents love in all its varieties. The bubble we have already covered. Therefore putting these together, this ostensibly cheery portrait is actually somewhat pessimistic about the longevity of love. I adore the depiction of the wings and the bubble itself. I also cannot help but notice that Cupid looks a little bit like Rembrandt himself!
I hope these three or four paintings have brought a small amount of joy into your day. Thank you for sticking with me through this soapy post!
“quod, ut dicitur, si est homo bulla, eo magis senex”