The ambitious new Manet/Velázquez show is really a story about feet.

Click  here for a slide show discussion of Manet and Velázquez.

In its earliest days, art history was a scholarly, or semi-scholarly, discipline—a time when connoisseurs like Bernard Berenson traced artistic influence with an appreciative flourish rather than a critical edge. Connoisseurship’s value lay in its abundance of lovingly gathered examples, a gift to the imagination found in luscious books like Berenson’s Florentine Painters of the Renaissance. Such indiscriminate joy animates the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current exhibition, “Manet/Velázquez: The French Taste for Spanish Painting.” And so you forgive the show’s overreaching spirit for the sake of its generosity. You also leave feeling grateful for the way all the evidence has produced an unexpected revelation.

Because the curators’ zealous search for influence has yielded dozens of marvelous paintings, it’s not really a disappointment when the show’s unsensational premise—that Spanish painting had a decisive effect on French art in the 19th century—overreaches itself. Although the result is what my grandmother would have called umgepatchke—i.e., random and overcrowded—this wide assortment of beautiful, original, or simply interesting work ends up telling its own unofficial story: a quirky and revealing tale of the human figure’s evolution in modern painting, which is also the story of the shift from sacred to secular representations of mortality.

Velázquez,The Jester Pablo de Valladolid, and Manet, The Tragic Actor

The show begins with a brilliant curatorial stroke. At the exhibition’s entrance, two portraits hang side by side: Édouard Manet’s The Tragic Actor (Rouviere as Hamlet) (1865-66), and Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez’s The Jester Pablo de Valladolid (circa 1632-1635). Both figures possess the quality of being surrounded by “nothing but air,” as an admiring Manet noted about Velázquez’s figures when he first encountered them. Neither portrait contains a speck of context. The only proof that the two figures are standing on solid ground is the shadow that each throws behind him. They inhabit an abstract, somber universe.

But we know that Manet’s actor and Velázquez’s jester are real figures. For one thing, they are dressed for work: Rouviere, the actor, is clad in Hamlet’s black, carrying a plumed hat, his sword lying on the ground beside him; the jester wears his cloak comically tied across his stomach. More important, we know they are real because we see their feet, the presence of which particularizes their place in the empty air. And this sight of ordinary mortals’ feet is an exceptional moment in the history of art.

Until Velázquez placed his solitary figures against an abstract background, the only time that painters portrayed the full figure, from head to toe, in isolation against an abstract (as opposed to domestic, pastoral, or urban) environment was in representations of Christ’s crucifixion. Throughout the history of art, especially during the Italian Renaissance, painters depicting the Annunciation sometimes touchingly revealed the angel’s feet under his resplendent robe. But they never placed him against an abstract or empty background. Likewise, painters portraying secular subjects represented their contemporaries against abstract backgrounds—one thinks of Titian (who painted in the early 16th century), or Van Dyck (in the early 17th), or Rembrandt (in the mid- to late 17th)—but never showed the viewer their subjects’ feet. Only in depictions of Christ on the cross did artists portray both the full human figure, feet included, and an encompassing abstract environment. (The background in Velázquez’s Christ on the Cross, unfortunately not in this show, with its big-headed nails driven into the bloody feet, has got to be one of the most abstract in Western art.)

Saint Francisin Meditation 

As you move through the show, the suffering, timeless Christ is displaced by the living, breathing human figure.  “Crucifixions” became less common, and the full figure (i.e., with feet) isolated in empty space appeared more frequently. Christ’s pathos was replaced by “the heroism of modern life,” as Baudelaire—Manet’s dearest friend—once put it. But behind every portrait of the full figure in abstract space is—like a light source with no shadow—the crucifixion’s mythic import of mortality as a curse, translated into modern terms as the simple heroism of going it alone.

The paired paintings by Manet and Velázquez sharply illustrate this transformation of the sacred into the secular. As in depictions of the Crucifixion, these are full figures dwelling in “nothing but air.” Like Christ, Manet’s actor is itinerant. And like Christ, the performers are gesturing with a single finger; unlike Christ, whose finger always points upward, theirs are pointing downward, toward earth, as if to convey a new emphasis on the earthly as opposed to the heavenly.

Velázquez’s jester, Pablo de Valladolid, with his dramatic posture and his left hand over his heart, is obviously caught up in the business of playing a role: You think of Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage/ and all the men and women merely players” (an Elizabethan platitude that also animated Don Quixote, published when Velázquez was growing up). The jester was also an object of mockery, just as Christ was mocked as he bore his cross toward Calvary. Tying these theatrical and religious themes together, Velázaquez has combined in the figure of Pablo de Valladolid a modern sense (the 17th century used to be modern) of arbitrary destiny with the Christian idea of universal suffering.

But Manet takes the theatricality much further. He discards Velázquez’s simile of people being like actors and instead fuses life and acting into a single, literal mode of existence: Once human beings are thrown back on themselves, away from God’s created world, the individual, like a divinity, begins to loom larger than his or her context. Undefined by context, like divinities, people can play any role they want; again, like divinities. For this reason the actor, having absorbed a deity’s detached and infinitely plastic nature, becomes representative of the modern person.

Boy With a Sword; Mlle V … in the Costume of an Espada

Obsessed with capturing this element of modernity in his painting, Manet collapsed life and theatricality together. In Manet’s The Tragic Actor (Rouviere as Hamlet)—as well as in his Faure in the Role of Hamlet, the painter Rouviere strikes a very untheatrical pose, and Faure, his face bearing an equally ordinary expression, seems to stride right into the viewer’s space. Manet loved painting matadors and Spanish folk-singers and opera singers and fifers because their jobs required that they wear costumes; in other words, they were people whose authenticity lay in the roles they played. Even Manet’s beggars, his absinthe drinkers, and his businessmen seem like actors, in the same way that his actors seem like ordinary people.

When you go to the movies and watch Brando or Monroe or Nicholson playing their off-screen persona at the same time as they are playing their characters, you are watching the visual echoes of Manet’s figures. (For more on how American painters handled the question of the full figure, click here.) With his portrayals of people withdrawn from society into some enigmatic psychic space—even as they seem in the midst of performing a public role—Manet is the father of us all. That’s this exhibition’s real lesson of influence.

Click here to see the slide show.