M. Barret, Paris (acquired from the artist in October, 1872)
Jean-Baptiste Faure, Paris (acquired from the above in 1884)
Durand-Ruel, Paris (acquired from the above on May 12, 1893)
Harris Whittemore, Naugatuck, Connecticut (acquired from the above on May 12, 1893)
Gertrude B. Whittemore (acquired from the above by at least 1935)
J.H. Whittemore Co. (acquired from the above)
Paul Rosenberg and M. Knoedler & Co., New York (acquired from the above in 1936)
Acquired from the above in April 1945
Les Courses au Bois de Boulogne is one of Manet's most beautiful and striking images. The deep aquamarine color of the grass track and the infield against which we see the horses and spectators is a bold and appealing pictorial conceit. Moreover, it signals the artist's emphasis on the abstract characteristics of the composition as a whole. Manet's slightly elevated vantage point causes the ground plane to seem to tilt toward the picture plane. The result is a strong emphasis on the rich and varied character of the surface of the painting. The viewer's eye is drawn to the inherent beauty of the paint itself, whether in the broad expanse of the variegated aquamarine field that occupies the lower half of the canvas, or in such details as the jockeys' uniforms, the sheen of the horses' coats, the umbrellas in the lower right foreground, and the groups of glyph-like spectators who seem to pay homage to the figures in Goya's bullfight compositions. This remarkable work is at one stylistically advanced, visually daring, and, considering its date, astonishingly modern.
In 1872 Parisians would have found a sunny day at the races in the Bois de Boulogne especially welcome, because memories of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) and the violent civil upheaval known as The Commune (1871) were still fresh. The pleasure of a day at the races would not have been taken for granted, and for some it would have offered reassurance that life had begun to return to normal during the first year of the Third Republic.
Manet’s interest in racing subjects is traceable to 1864, but, with the exception of Courses à Longchamps (see fig. 1), he did not return to the theme again until 1872 when the painting in the Whitney Collection was commissioned by an individual whom Adolphe Tabarant identifies only as a sportsman named Barret (Adolphe Tabarant, Manet et ses oeuvres, Paris, 1947, n.p.). According to John Rewald, “The picture is said to have been painted partly from nature, Manet working from the windmill which stands near the racetrack in the Bois de Boulogne” (John Rewald, The John Hay Whitney Collection (exhibition catalogue), London, 1960-61, no. 35). However, the windmill lies at the top of the turn at the north end of the track, and Manet’s vantage point seems farther to the east, looking southwest across the infield toward the south end of the spectator stands.
The distinguished art historian Julius Meier-Graefe suggests that Degas’s racing scenes were influenced by those of Manet (Julius Meier-Graefe, Edouard Manet, Munich, 1912), but Jacques-Emile Blanche, John Richardson, and Jean C. Harris believe that Degas’s racetrack paintings provided an example for Manet (see fig. 2). Degas was in fact the first among the Impressionists to execute such pictures, but his early treatments of the theme are relatively small and very different in spirit and compositional type from those by Manet. Interestingly, Richardson and Etienne Moreau-Nélaton maintain that the top-hatted figure in the lower right corner of the painting is in fact Degas, and that by including him in the painting Manet acknowledged his debt to his friend. We know that on at least one occasion Manet and Degas spent a day together at the track, because Degas drew Manet accompanied by a woman looking through binoculars (see fig. 3). Oil sketches show that she wears a type of hat and apron dress fashionable between 1869 and 1872 (see fig. 4). It is not known whether Manet and Degas went to the races together earlier and if they may have exchanged ideas about painting racing subjects. In the present instance, it seems more likely that Manet had been influenced by the interpretations of jockeys and galloping horses in Théodore Géricault's La course de chevaux à Epsom, 1821, which was acquired by the Louve in 1866.
In any canvas, both Manet and Degas were attracted to the racetrack as a subject appropriate to paintings about modern life. Indeed, the anonymous, faceless figures of the spectators in the present work could sever as illustrations of "the perfect flâneur" as defined in Charles Baudelaire's famous essay of 1863, "Le Peintre de la vie moderne." Indeed, the spectator-filled carriages recall his description of “innumerable carriages, from which slim young men and women garbed in the eccentric costume authorized by the season, hoisted up on cushions, on seats, or on the roof, are attending some ceremony of the turf which is going on in the distance” (Charles Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays (translated and edited by Jonathan Mayne), London, 1965, p. 39).
Despite the success and appeal of this extraordinary painting, Manet never again undertook a painting with a horseracing theme. However, we know that in 1879 the idea still interested him, because he wrote to the Prefect of the Seine to propose a series of paintings representing “the public and commercial life of our day,” to decorate the Municipal Council Hall in the new Hôtel de Ville. One of the five themes that he intended to treat was “Paris Racetracks and Gardens” (Françoise Cachin, Charles S. Moffett, et. al., Manet 1832-1883 (exhibition catalogue), New York, 1983 , pp. 38-39). Les Courses au Bois de Boulogne suggests that the Prefect of the Seine failed to seize an opportunity that would have yielded a remarkable result.
Fig. 1, Edouard Manet, Races at Longchamp, circa 1867, oil on canvas, The Art Institute of Chicago.
Fig. 2, Edgar Degas, The False Start, 1869-72, oil on panel, Yale University Art Gallery, John Hay Whitney, B.A. 1926, Hon. M.A. 1956, Collection.
FIg. 3, Edgar Degas, Manet at the Races, 1868-70, graphite on paper, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1919.
4. Edgar Degas, Young Woman with Field Glasses, circa 1866-1868, brush with essence on paper, The British Museum.
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