Early in his artistic career — in the 1860s, when he was still being jeered at and ridiculed — Edouard Manet made two paintings that are considered masterpieces now.
They're on view, together for the first time in years, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. And one of them has had a pretty serious makeover.
Ann Hoenigswald spent two years doing extensive conservation work on Manet's The Old Musician, revealing unseen colors under the thick, dark veil of varnish Manet applied 150 years earlier.
"Whites that were intended to have that rich, gorgeous white color turned yellow," says Hoenigswald. "The blues would turn green."
The varnish had dramatically changed Manet's colors, but Hoenigswald says the artist had good reasons for applying it in the first place.
Painters varnish their canvases to preserve the paint, and to deepen and intensify the colors. Varnish also protects the paint from viewers who decide they must touch the picture. But over time, the varnish begins to yellow, which changes the painting in unintended ways.
Removing varnish is artful surgery, involving doctor-style headbands fitted with magnifying glasses and the use of various solvents that will dissolve damage without dissolving paint.
"We use spit and Q-tips sometimes, just to remove the layer of grime that usually sits on top of the varnish layer," Hoenigswald says.
Sounds low-tech, no? But Hoenigswald says spit works better than plain water sometimes because of the enzymes it contains. And given the grime that builds up from passersby, air and time, curators need to use all available tricks.
In addition to brightening Manet's colors, the conservation detectives revealed a secret about The Old Musician: Manet seems to have wrestled with the composition of this work.
The painting centers on a bearded old fellow draped in a blanket; he sits with a violin in one hand and a bow in the other, looking straight at the viewer. Nearby, on the left side of the canvas, stand two country boys and a barefoot girl (possibly a Gypsy) holding a baby.
"I think that's all he had in mind originally," Hoenigswald says.
And then, she says, Manet changed his mind. He added two more figures to the right of the musician. First, there's a man in a top hat — looking strangely urban in the painting's rural setting.
Hoenigswald knew that Manet had painted this gentleman four years earlier in a piece called The Absinthe Drinker. In that painting, the man sits on a ledge. Nearby, there's a glass filled with liquid — presumably the absinthe. That painting was in Manet's studio while he worked on The Old Musician. Hoenigswald traveled to the Copenhagen museum that now owns The Absinthe Drinker and made a tracing. She discovered that it was precisely the same size and shape as the top-hatted figure in The Old Musician.
Except that in The Old Musician, Mr. Top Hat's ledge isn't there; he doesn't exactly sit, and he doesn't exactly stand. He just hovers. Hoenigswald thinks this bothered Manet.
"That's when I think he put the final figure in on the right," says Hoenigswald. "I think he was added to physically and literally ground the figure of the man with the top hat."
To the viewer, the two figures may appear to be afterthoughts — not fully integrated into the overall composition.
Kimberly Jones, a curator of French paintings at the National Gallery, agrees. She says Manet loved mysteries and ambiguities, not showing everything and inviting interpretation.
He also liked making large paintings of people who were on the margins of society — poor, unregarded. The figures in The Old Musician are such people. So is The Ragpicker — on loan from the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Calif., to hang next to the musician.
"A ragpicker is the lowest of the low in 19th-century society," Jones says. "Someone who literally survives by picking up the scraps that people leave behind. And Manet puts him on a monumental scale."
The canvas is more than 6 feet long and more than 4 feet wide. Traditionally, only saints and historic figures were painted on such a scale. But Manet gives the ragpicker his due.
"You can't ignore these figures," says Jones. "It's very easy to walk by them and ignore them on the street, but Manet puts them right in your face and makes you confront them."
Manet was on the road to Impressionism with these two paintings from the 1860s. He was not himself an Impressionist, but he impressed that school of painters mightily with his handling of oil paints. And now, in The Old Musician, those newly cleaned and revarnished paints look even more impressive.
The Old Musician and The Ragpicker are on view together at the National Gallery of Art through Sept. 7, 2009.