By Marie Julio
Sixty miles south of Detroit rests its twin, of sorts, not normally thought of as an art and design hub: Toledo.However, in two weeks, the first exhibition of Édouard Manet’s work to specifically focus on portraiture as a means to understand his wider subject matter – 19th Century French life – will open at the Toledo Museum of Art. The exhibition features nearly forty works from museums and private collections worldwide, including both the well-known and obscure.
One of the paintings included in the show, Boy Blowing Bubbles, depicts a young boy with a bubble not quite released from the stick he uses for its distention. I was reminded of a 2002 interview with Sabine Mödersheim published in Cabinet Magazine‘s Childhood issue, in which Mödersheim discusses the bubble motif in portraits of children:
In 16th-century art and especially in Dutch 17th-century painting, bubbles are a moralizing emblem. The child is actually not at stake. The bubble blowing activity is what is important and the bubble is an allegory. It’s very telling and probably surprising for someone today to see how children and bubbles were initially connected to death. The emblem was used as an allegory of fleeting time and the shortness of life, and as a reminder of futility and death. […] [A] shift is clearly marked by the Chardin painting The Soap Bubble from 1739. It’s much more about personal melancholy, mourning one’s own childhood being gone rather than the general idea of vanitas and fleeting time… The painting depicts children at an age where they might start regretting that their childhood is over.
Unlike the formal portraits of his contemporaries, Manet’s unconventional portraits feature family and friends engaged in artistic and intellectual activity. Clearly Manet was interested not only in time passing, but how we pass the time.
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