Two Manets, A Makeover And A Mystery Early in his career, the French artist made two paintings that are on view, together for the first time in years, at a Washington, D.C., gallery. Curators made a fascinating discovery while restoring one of them.
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Two Manets, A Makeover And A Mystery

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Two Manets, A Makeover And A Mystery

Two Manets, A Makeover And A Mystery

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Early in his artistic career, in the 1860s when he was being jeered at and ridiculed, Edouard Manet created two paintings which came to be known as masterpieces, and they are on view together for the first time in years at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg says one of them has had a makeover.

SUSAN STAMBERG: The technical term is conservation. Ann Hoenigswald spent two years doing extensive conservation work on Manet's "The Old Musician," and found treasures. The thick varnish Manet applied had darkened over 150 years into a veil that changed his colors.

Ms. ANN HOENIGSWALD (Artist): Whites that were intended to have that rich, gorgeous white color turned yellow. The blues would turn green.

STAMBERG: Why do people put vanish on paintings?

Ms. HOENIGSWALD: Two reasons: one, it actually protects the paint layer, so if somebody touches it they would be touching the varnish rather than the paint itself.

STAMBERG: The other reason: varnish intensifies and deepens the colors. Removing the varnish is artful surgery involving headbands like some doctors wear, with magnifying glasses attached, and you use various solvents that will dissolve the damage, but not the paint.

And what about spit and Q-tips?

Ms. HOENIGSWALD: We use spit and Q-tips sometimes to remove just the top layer of grime that usually sits on top of a varnish layer.

STAMBERG: Grime from passersby, from air, from time. Seems the enzymes from our spit work better often than just plain water.

In addition to brightening Manet's colors, conservation revealed a treasure. It's really like detective work. The painting - you can see it at npr.org -centers on an old bearded fellow draped in a blanket. He sits, violin in one hand, bow in the other, looking straight at you with his piercing brown eyes. Nearby, on the left: two country boys and a barefoot girl holding a baby.

Ms. HOENIGSWALD: I think that's all he had in mind initially.

STAMBERG: Then Manet changed his mind. He added two more figures to the right of the old musician - one, a man in a top hat, strangely city-looking in this rural scene.

Hoenigswald knew that Manet had painted that gentleman once before, four years earlier. That painting was in Manet's studio. Hoenigswald went to see the original Mr. Top Hat at a museum in Copenhagen, traced it, and discovered it was precisely the same size and shape as the man near the musician, except the second Mr. Top Hat doesn't exactly sit, doesn't exactly stand; he kind of hovers. Hoenigswald thinks that bothered Manet.

Ms. HOENIGSWALD: And that's when I think he put the final figure in on the right, who's been identified as the old Jew or the man with the turban.

STAMBERG: And a cane.

Ms. HOENIGSWALD: And a cane.

STAMBERG: And a big, long beard, I think. And what is that, a fur collar on his coat? Or I can't quite see.

Ms. HOENIGSWALD: What a great turban on his head.

STAMBERG: Yes.

Ms. HOENIGSWALD: And he, I think, was put in to actually physically and literally ground the figure of the man with the top hat.

STAMBERG: Not to be impolite, but they don't seem very necessary. In fact, it kind of unbalances the whole thing.

Unkind to talk a behind Manet's back, but it really does.

To me they look like add-ons.

Ms. KIMBERLEY JONES (National Gallery of Art): Well, they are very much so, and it is very strange.

STAMBERG: Kimberley Jones, a curator of French paintings at the National Gallery, says Manet loved mysteries and ambiguities, not showing everything, inviting interpretation.

He also liked making big paintings of people who were poor, on the margins of society, like the old musician and the rag-picker — on loan from the Norton Simon Museum to hang near the violin player.

Ms. JONES: And the rag-picker is the lowest of the low in 19th-century society, someone who literally survives by picking up the scraps that people leave behind. And Manet puts him on a monumental scale.

STAMBERG: Usually saints and historic figures were painted that way, alone and looming. But here's this poor man getting his due.

Ms. JONES: You can't ignore these figures. I mean - it's very easy to walk by them and ignore them on the street, but Manet puts them right in your face and makes you confront them.

STAMBERG: Edouard Manet was on the road to Impressionism with these two paintings from the 1860s. Manet was not himself an Impressionist, but he impressed them mightily with his handling of oil paint. And now, at the National Gallery of Art, newly cleaned and re-varnished, his paints look even spiffier.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: You can visit the Manets virtually at npr.org.

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