LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
A major star who has absolutely nothing to do with movies is having his day in Los Angeles right now. It's the 19th century French painter Edouard Manet. Not exactly an Impressionist painter, he was a free and easy painter of figures, revolutionary enough for the Impressionists to make him their hero. Two LA museums are featuring two major Manet works. One of them cost of $65 million. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg tells us which one.
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: To call this story Manet Comes to LA is a little supercilious. Several museums here have some Manet's in their permanent collection. But these two - "The Railway," on loan from Washington's National Gallery of Art, and "Spring" - that's the big-ticket item - are new in town and getting the star treatment. The Norton Simon Museum has "The Railway" on view for the first time on the West Coast. It's a large canvas - two figures - a woman and a little girl, maybe 6 or 7 - in front of the vertical wrought iron bars of a fence.
EMILY BEENY: There are caricatures representing these two girls as inmates in an insane asylum, as animals in a zoo or as inmates in a prison.
STAMBERG: Curator Emily Beeny says critics ridiculed the picture in 1874. As usual Manet, then 41, was being enigmatic.
It's called "The Railway," but you see no train.
BEENY: Exactly. We don't see the train at all, itself. It's true, it's invisible.
STAMBERG: You know it's there, though - from puffs of steam billowing behind those black bars, steam from a train engine at the Gare Saint-Lazare, the bustling new rail station near Manet's studio. The child in his picture is fascinated by those white clouds of steam. Back turned to us, she stares at them, little soft baby fat on her upper arm and neck, sweet white dress with a crisp, blue taffeta sash tied behind in a big bow.
BEENY: Manet was very attentive to womens' and girls' fashion.
STAMBERG: Sitting next to the child, facing us with a book and a small dog in her lap, a young woman in an up-to-the-minute outfit.
BEENY: A specific style of blue dress that was fashionable through the summer of 1872.
STAMBERG: Who is this nattily dressed lady?
BEENY: It's difficult for us to figure out who exactly she is and what her relationship is to the little girl beside her.
STAMBERG: Sisters? Aunt and niece? Mother and child?
BEENY: I think that maybe a better guess is that she's a governess.
STAMBERG: What do you see in her face?
BEENY: Well, what don't I see in her face?
STAMBERG: She looks right at us with resignation, annoyance, boredom - how long do I have to sit here while this kid stares at the steam? It's enigmatic.
BEENY: We can read whatever we want to into that look and that's what made her such an amazing model and muse for Manet.
STAMBERG: Years earlier, in her teens, Victorine Meurent posed for some of Manet's most revolutionary pictures. She was a prostitute, supine on a sofa, in Olympia. She picnicked with top-hatted men in "The Luncheon On The Grass. No fine clothes for her then, nude.
BEENY: Nude, indeed.
STAMBERG: And always enigmatic.
BEENY: In almost every picture he painted of her, she looks directly out at us in a way that is very difficult to read.
STAMBERG: And at the Norton Simon Museum, we look right back in puzzlement and pleasure.
I was over yesterday at the Getty yesterday looking at their "Spring."
BEENY: Oh, I love that painting.
STAMBERG: Manet made "Spring" in the 1881. The J. Paul Getty Museum bought it recently.
BEENY: You know, its painted at the very end of his life in this sort of final reaching out to grab youth and beauty and all of the things that make life wonderful in a moment when he is in failing health, it's often difficult for him to paint. So in the last years of his life, he paints mostly beautiful girls and flowers.
TIMOTHY POTTS: This is the perfect encapsulation of spring.
STAMBERG: Timothy Potts is director of the Getty.
POTTS: She's young and full of life and the sun is shining and the flowers are blooming. It says it all.
STAMBERG: Clear as day. "Spring" is light, bright - a young woman in profile, flowing cuffs on her flowered white dress, caramel colored gloves. Manet's brush flirts across the campus, darting and dancing with color. It's a pretty picture - unusual for this artist. He'd been darker, saluting Velazquez and Goya. Here, his only black is the ribbon tying his model's hat. Getty curator Scott Allan says Manet's use of the color was distinctive.
SCOTT ALLAN: The Impressionist famously sort of jettisoned black. And, you know, their shadows would be blue and purple. And, you know, if you look at Renoirs there's no blacks to be seen, so it's one of Manet's signature elements.
STAMBERG: Pissarro once said Manet knew how to paint light with black. This late canvas shows off that knowledge - this late, expensive canvas.
POTTS: It's a lot of money. I mean, I'm not denying that.
STAMBERG: Getty director Tim Potts. Sixty-five million dollars for "Spring," highest amount for a Manet at auction.
POTTS: It would be absolutely crazy if the price paid for this - the last great Manet in private hands - hadn't been a record, since nothing comparable has been on the market for nearly 100 years. This was the only chance. It was a hugely famous painting in its time and ever since, so there was never going to be a greater Manet than this on the market.
STAMBERG: Any visitor to the Getty will be glad to see "Spring." Ditto for those who go to the Norton Simon before March 2, when Manet's "Railway" puffs its way back to Washington. In California, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
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