1867 was a fateful year for Édouard Manet in that his art, hitherto idyllic and placid, shifted drastically to the moods of poignancy and relentlessness. Two deaths signaled the change: his old friend and enduring champion, Charles Baudelaire, and the tragic emperor Maximilian I, who was executed by the Juaristas after a failed foreign initiative in the Mexico empire. The seminal work, Execution of Emperor Maximilian, would not see its completion until two years later, as Manet’s progress and insistence on a faithful portrayal were incessantly impeded by the inaccurate accounts of the event. The intervening period yielded a result that continued this preoccupation with grief: in the weeks followed Baudelaire’s death Manet summoned his godson, Leon Koella, to blow soap bubbles in his studio on the Rue Guyot.
The soap bubble, with its brittle form and enchanting presence, has been a popular subject of the vanitas, a genre that serves to remind of the futility and transience of earthly life. In paintings, the soap bubble’s especial appeal amongst children is underscored; most of these innocent and endearing evocations of childhood fun, however, belie an allegorical message of delicate lives “nipped in the buds.” Though it wasn’t known if an “implication of death” was the precise end Manet sought to arrive at with his painting, Boy Blowing Bubbles, with its overall sombre effect, poses as a modern example of memento mori.
Boy Blowing Bubbles is a perfect indication of Manet’s unorthodox artistry. The boy, dressed in a beige sweatshirt, is set off against a stark background. The dearth of a more nuanced colouration contributes to a curious deflatedness of the figure, rendering the result more like a cut-out than a painting. There is every reason to suppose that the boy is less a human being and more of a petering-out spectral. First there is the vacuous expression, caused possibly by the tedious posing session that every of Manet’s sitter was obliged to undergo, that creates a shuddering sense of disinterestedness that contrasts sharply with an activity (blowing bubbles) that is bound to produce joy. Secondly, if observe closely the painting, one can notice immediately the crudity and uncertainty of brushstroke, which makes the outlines of the forms, to use a term that may seem anachronistic in this context, “pixelated” and blurry to a degree that, like a decrepit sandcastle, a sudden wind can shatter the whole thing into flying dusts.
It is hardly an unprecedented instance to amplify the horror of thememento mori by deliberately rendering the personage a ghostly figure. Hieronymus Bosch’s Death and Miser is a gruesome case in point: the miser, before choosing whether he should succumb to the temptations of Evil or embrace the salvation of God, looks uncannily a growing resemblance of the former with his livid skin and shrunken frame. This seal of fate is as final as the underlying message is potent and definitive: if you decide to nurture a miserly love for earthly goods, you will soon be joined by the devils before having a chance to reverse the wrong path.
As a portrait Boy Blowing Bubbles manifests how strikingly remote Manet was from his fellow Impressionists. A notable affinity with the past can be felt, reverting less to the style of Manet’s artistic heroes, Velazquez or Goya, and more to that of the earlier period: the Early Netherlandish. There is the similar inscrutable impassiveness of the figure’s mien and a marked sense of solemnity enhanced by the restrained nature of the composition. Like the Flemish master Jan van Eyck, Manet is versed in the trick of how to mystify and awe his viewers.