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Manet, Plum Brandy

Édouard Manet, Plum Brandy, c. 1877, oil on canvas (National Gallery of Art) Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker, Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano playing) Steven: We're looking at a relatively small Édouard Manet at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. It's called Plum Brandy and it's a really enigmatic little painting. It shows this young woman in this pink outfit sitting at a table with what looks like an unlit cigarette in her hand. Beth: Yeah. Steven: And a little glass of plum brandy. Beth: Right, a brandy with a plum in it. What's so characteristic of Manet here, and also of Degas and what other impressionists did is the way that she looks outside of the canvas. And how enigmatic her look is, how we can't read what she's thinking about. She looks away, we don't know what she's looking at. We don't know what our relationship is to her. But there's something so modern and so powerful about her. And so she must be a working class woman- Steven: No question. Steven: And I think we know that from her clothing and- Beth: And the cigarette and she's alone in a bar. Steven: It was not okay for her to have this cigarette- Beth: No. Steven: Nor to be alone in the bar. Beth: And probably a middle class, upper-middle class women Steven: Absolutely. Steven: So she's waiting. In a sense waiting for us to look at her. Manet has set this up so we become the person who interacts. Beth: Right, which he does so often, doesn't he? Steven: He really does. Steven: But he has separated us from her Beth: Table. Steven: Yeah and the table really functions as this barrier, doesn't it? Steven: And also this sort of beautiful and abstracting plane that has its own ambiguity and its own beauty. Beth: Look at how carefully and geometrically composed this is. How locked within that rectangle in the upper left. The horizontal line of the table, the horizontal line of the couch, the vertical line of the leg of the table. It's like a modern Vermeer of a woman locked inside a space. Steven: Yes absolutely, except that his touch of the paintbrush. Beth: Yeah. Steven: Because this is also all about the way in which he renders the paint loosely. Beth: Yeah, this open, luscious brush work. Steven: Yeah it's fantastic and look at the hand. I'm actually especially taken with her right hand which folds in back in this very sort of- Beth: Characteristic gesture. Steven: But also a very complicated foreshortening to pull off and he does it beautifully. Beth: But again, even that arm which just looks okay to us would have looked very unfinished to a viewer in the 1870's and 1880's. Steven: I think unfinished and also a pose that would have been absolutely avoided in a more traditional painting in the Academy. (piano playing)