A Studio at Les Batignolles by Henri Fantin-Latour (1870), Musée D’Orsay.
This is no ordinary group of bearded white guys. No, this is the Taylor Swift girl squad equivalent of 19th Century French art.
Seated before an easel is Edouard Manet, the leader of what is rarely, if ever, referred to as the Batignolles group. Surrounding Manet, are some bigger household names: Emilie Zola (famous french author), Auguste Renoir (more famous french painter), and Claude Monet (maybe the most famous artist ever). The lesser known figures in the scene include Frédéric Bazille (another major painter), Edmond Maître (french politician) and Zacharie Astruc (a sculptor cum journalist).
The painting, which might seem dark and rather staid, is actually imitating several older prototypes in the grand genre of chummy white guys standing around. Fatin-Latour definitely would have looked to 17th Century Dutch Civic portraits. Like this one by Frans Hal. Minus the ruffs.
There’s also a pretty overt reference to the famed Spanish court painter Diego Velázquez’s masterpiece Las Meninas. The figure at the easel is Veláquez himself, and Fatin-Latour’s presentation of Manet seems eerily similar. It’s not an accident.
Manet was a huge, huge fan of Velásquez. Much of his early work drew heavily from Spanish style themes and conventions in style, composition and brushwork directly from the great Spanish master. To paint Manet literally in the place of Velásquez is a heavy-handed gesture of flattery. One that probably enthralled Manet.
Henri Fatin-Latour’s arranged the painting according to the seniority of the group, with Manet as Queen Bee. From Fatin-Latour’s perspective in 1870s, Renoir and Monet are Manet’s disciples. In the 21st century this seems weird: Monet is the artistic giant and Manet is a typo. But, it goes to show how profoundly views of art and artists change radically over time. A Studio at Les Batignolles is not just a relic of period when french guys in three piece suits and hung out in drawing rooms, but a snapshot of an alternative view of history. It’s a point where two giants of art were still regulated to the position of student, before they grow to overshadow the then-proclaimed master.