The giant horizontal body seemed to be floating in black space, as if levitating. There was a profound stillness about it. I remember inspecting the body for a clue as to the cause of this stillness and my eyes lit on the spate of red about the mouth, which seemed such a tiny thing. Then, I imagined the charging bull. As a young adult I made frequent visits to the National Gallery of Art and found myself returning over and over again to Manet’s “The Dead Toreador,” astonished and humbled by its power and monumental scale. There’s no action in the painting, no brilliant hues, yet, I imagined that I heard and felt the shocked silence of an unseen audience.
The figure cuts a powerful diagonal within the rectangle’s frame. The beautiful, exquisitely dressed corpse floats before us for our inspection. We see hardly a crease in the clothes, or a mark on the body. The silent wide fact of it is a shock. Only the head is dramatically off axis. The young man is dead but just a trickle of red near his shoulder and smudge about the mouth indicates blood. Red is echoed throughout, notably in the pink satin muleta resting on the floor, emphasizing the ground plane, fixing the eye level, and leading us into the space that his body occupies. The tiny red flecks of blood on his hand and pink sash are another hint as the mottled sash bisects his body. Stretched out and motionless, this beautiful giant’s pink cummerbund conveys volume and whispers to our perceptions of stamina and virility. The head’s counter-diagonal position relays the idea that the man is dead. But Manet holds back, creating drama not by indicating action but by using extremes of light and dark, with the blackest black and the whitest white inhabiting the same color space.
Originally titled “Incident at a Bullfight”, the first version of the painting included a bullfighting ring on its upper portion. Manet created the image in his studio using Goya’s series “Tauromaquia”, possibly Alexander Gardner’s Civil War photographs and “A Dead Soldier”, (anonymous Neapolitan) in The National Gallery, London as source material. (Early National Gallery catalogues presented the painting as ‘by’ and ‘attributed to’ Velázquez.) Manet wrote in a letter to Henri Fantin-Latour in 1865 about Velázquez: “He is the painter of painters. He has astonished me, he has ravished me.” After critics found it spatially distorted, Manet cut the painting into fragments and eliminated all of the forms behind the matador on the bottom section. The top section “The Bullfight” is in The Frick Collection.
After gazing at and becoming familiar with the painting over time, and then reading a short monograph on it, I was stunned to learn how many steps he took to realize this image. It seems to be painted and conceived as one thought. After Manet cut the painting there was no longer any spectacle to consider, only the dead man. And that is where its power lies: he creates drama through its subtle structure, allowing the viewer to participate in the realization that the matador is dead and that this death was indeed violent. These extreme revisions changed the very nature and power of the piece; it had once been a narrative image but is now powerfully iconic.
Manet speaks to my contemporaries and me partly because he altered, manipulated, cut, and added to paintings as he worked. Manet was a studio painter, conceptual in his approach, and was intrigued by paint and its substance. He handled paint in a way that was palpable, direct and sensuous to the eye and brought energy to paint and the handling of it that was new. He moved huge chunks and painted forms in and out, and through his process brought a bold new approach to painting.