Le Suicide: Manet's Modern Crucifixion.

by Holly Paradis

June 12, 2005




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“Le Suicidé:” Édouard Manet’s Modern Crucifixion


“The buffoon came and went, laughed and wept, lashed into fury, with always

about his head an imperishable aureole, invisible to all , but visible to me, that

blended in a strange amalgam the beams of Art and the Glory of Martyrdom”

(Charles Baudelaire- A Heroic Death)



During his final years (1877-1881), Édouard Manet painted an anonymous dandy’s suicide.  Located in the Bührle Collection, Zurich, Switzerland, Le Suicidé (Fig. 1) is an anomaly in Manet’s oeuvre.  Despite the curious theme of the painting, it exists as a marginalized work in Manet scholarship.   The iconography is puzzling — both the identity of the man and the circumstances surrounding this primal act of self-inflicted torture has eluded scholars.  Death is an occasional theme in Manet’s oeuvre, but the vivid evocation of madness and desolation is atypical.  The graphic brutality pictured in Le Suicidé has earned the painting the superlative, ‘the grimmest and most realistic death image Manet ever created.’ [1]

The ‘grim’ nature of the work resides in the grisly details —the vast puddle of blood at the foot of the bed and on the victim’s white shirt, his dinner jacket strewn upon the floor, and his lifeless hand weighed down by the large revolver.  His gaping mouth seems to gasp for air, an alarming detail that suggests that the victim may not have successfully completed the act.  He currently lies in an agonizing physical and spiritual state of limbo.  Through the haphazard brushwork and the contorted position of the victim, Manet heightens the experiential nature of the masochistic act; the painting appears as a filmic episode unfolding before our eyes, forcing us to ponder, minute by minute, the circumstances that drove this man to attempt self-annihilation.

Despite the macabre iconography, scholars have gravitated toward the formal qualities of Le Suicidé.  As such, scholars have viewed the work in the context of Manet’s impressionist experimentation with light effects and color during the mid to late 1870’s.  Taking their cue from Manet’s early biographer, Adolphe Tabarant, who flippantly characterized Le Suicidé, ‘merely an incident of the palette,’ scholars have dismissed the painting as an emotionally detached study of light and color .[2] 

Linda Nochlin has masterfully described the way in which Manet heightens the reality of the scene through quick brushwork and convincing evidence, ‘the free, spontaneous and open handling of the technique—the drops of blood [that] sparkle like jewels of pure pigment on the surface of the canvas.’  Nochlin notes the morbid subject matter, ‘the inherent darkness and pathos of the situation,’ yet she adamantly rejects the notion that Manet’s emotions played any role in the painting, ‘[that is] depicted so apparently casually and directly, even callously.’   Rejecting the emotive quality of the painting, Nochlin construes the rhetoric of documentation, or the illusion of reality, as fact and thus, Le Suicidé has been viewed as the document of an actual suicide.  Specifically, Nochlin argues that the victim may have been driven to suicide due to gambling debts. [3]

Recent scholarship suggests that Le Suicidé was inspired by the death of an artist who committed suicide in 1866, Jules Holtzapffel; it seems that the artist was driven to desperate measures as a result of his recent rejection from the Paris Salon jury.  One week later, Manet’s close friend, the novelist, Émile Zola, recounted the events in an essay that appeared in the newspaper, L’Evénement. [4]  Viewing Holtzapffel’s death as the singular source of inspiration, Le Suicidé has been stereotyped as the artist’s wish to observe and record death as an emotionally detached scientist.  Executed nearly ten years after Holtzapffel’s suicide, it is unlikely that Manet’s Le Suicidé was inspired by this event.  Furthermore, there is no evidence that Manet read Zola’s article.[5] 

In 1881, Manet donated Le Suicidé to an auction held for the dying composer, Ernest Cabaner, a friend of Manet and a regular at the two stomping grounds of the Parisian literary and artistic avant-garde, the Café Guerbois and the Café de la Nouvelle Athènes.  At the time of the auction, Cabaner was suffering from the terminal stages of tuberculosis.  Manet executed a graphic portrait of Cabaner in 1880, shortly before the composer died.  Manet had paid personal tribute to an unfortunate friend before.  In particular, the artist is said to have painted The Tragic Actor (Fig. 2) as a public homage and a visual complement to the benefit performance held in honor of the terminally ill and destitute Shakespearean actor, Philibert Rouvière in 1865.[6]  Whereas Manet submitted The Tragic Actor to the Salon jury of 1866, he never attempted to exhibit Le Suicidé at the Salon. 

It has been suggested that Manet painted Le Suicidé with the tragic circumstances of the composer in mind.  Cabaner’s troubling plight is characterized by Émile Zola’s preface to the catalogue for the auction.  In the preface, Cabaner emerges as a Baudelairean Christ-figure, an unrecognized genius who has sacrificed everything in pursuit of his poetic vision:

Incidentally, it is not of the musician that I wish to speak, but rather

of the man who suffers.   Terrible life of the artist dropped on the street,

with the spike of an obsession driven into the head!  One jests with him,

one treats him as a bohemian, as a flop; the truth is that he died of his art. 

I do not know of a folly more respectable.  Even if he is mislead by his creative forces, even if he is lost in the subtleties of a theoretician, that

man—is it not touching and has he not his grandeur, a forgotten soldier

of the idea who ceases forever by virtue of it?[7] 

Because the tenor of Le Suicidé seems to parallel the romantic angst characterized in Zola’s preface, scholars feel that Manet painted the work with the composer and the auction in mind.  Concentrating on the dedicatory role of the painting, they have overlooked the possibility that the painting was initially inspired by the personal tragedies that the artist faced in the years preceding the auction of 1881, the date that scholars have assigned to Le Suicidé .  During the late 1870’s, Manet was stricken with the final stages of tertiary syphilis, a debilitating, terminal illness that robbed the artist of his mobility and his social integrity.  Adding insult to the artist’s ailing body, the artist had received a blow to his professional life in 1877 —the artist’s painting of the popular baritone, Jean-Baptiste Faure, in the role of Hamlet (Fig. 3), received scathing criticism from the popular press and the Salon jury of 1877.[8]  Viewing Le Suicidé in light of these personal circumstances, we may view the painting as a possible disguised self-portrait of the artists as a martyred Christ figure. 

I admit that such an idea is based on my personal response to certain details in the painting. Thus, the argument presented in this paper is merely one author’s reading of the painting.  Despite the personal nature of this argument, there is factual evidence that supports the notion that Manet’s Le Suicidé is an autobiographical painting much like other paintings in the artist’s oeuvre.  A great contributor to the psychoanalytic study of art, Bradford Collins, accepts the post-structuralist shift away from the Cartesian author/creator model, or the notion that meaning, “resides not in art works but in the minds of those who perceive them.”  Yet Collins feels that we must not abandon our wish to reconnect with the author (in this case, the artist’s) and his/her identity as the creator of the work of art. [9]  Acknowledging the subjective nature of my inquiry into Manet’s personal and social identity as an avant-garde artist and the role that it may have played in his painting, I am hopeful that the reader will suspend his/her disbelief in order to appreciate one of many possible readings of this eccentric and unusual painting in the artist’s oeuvre.

Throughout his career, Manet endured a ceaseless barrage of Salon criticism.  Because the artist spoke little about his life and art, we are left with scant evidence regarding his motivation for painting Le Suicidé.  However, we do have evidence that the artist frequently experienced marked periods of depression as a result of the inexhaustible flood of critical attacks on his work.  Scholars have noted that during difficult phases in his personal and public life, Manet used his painting as a vehicle for self-expression, specifically with regard to the theme of martyrdom.  Manet’s Salon painting of 1865, Jesus Mocked by Soldiers (Fig. 4) has been viewed in light of the humiliation and the public persecution that Manet endured early in his Salon career.  In her biography of the artist, Beth Archer Brombert views the painting as a personal reaction to the barrage of disparaging criticism that surrounded Manet’s submission to the Salon of 1864, The Dead Christ with Angels.  Specifically, she argues that Manet viewed the timeless image of martyrdom and suffering, the tortured and victimized Christian Messiah in the Ecce Homo, as a self-image:

Brombert notes the characteristic way in which Manet inserted self-reflexive motifs that heighten the autobiographical resonance of Manet’s version of the Ecce Homo theme:

The pathos of this very human, very humbled figure of Jesus—who

looks beyond his tormentors—suggests a personal identification with

the abused Messiah, and the vulgar and variegated figures of the soldiers

are a symbolic representation of the world that treated the painter with

such brutishness.  This was not bathetic posturing on Manet’s part, but

the use of an archetypal representation of incomprehension and derision. 

Nor was it the first or last time the artist entered into one of his own

paintings.  What is more, he prominently inserted a characteristic prop to designate himself, analogous to the brush and walking stick that

appear elsewhere.  Here it is the reed, mentioned in the Gospel account,

which also can be seen as a paintbrush.  Also noteworthy is Christ’s

beard, which is the color and shape of Manet’s own, to judge from photographs of him taken in the 1860’s.[10]

Following the brutal attacks at the Salon of 1865, Manet expressed the weight of his imaginary cross to his friend, Charles Baudelaire: ‘I truly wish you were here, my dear Baudelaire, for insults rain on me like hail, and I have never before found myself in a situation like this….’[11]  Perhaps unaware of his active participation in this masochistic drama, Manet may have experienced respite from the critical abuse by identifying his burden with that of Jesus Christ.

In the ground-breaking text, Manet and the Family Romance, Nancy Locke considers the artist’s recurring cast of characters drawn from close friends, family and love interests.  She explores how Manet consciously or unconsciously fashioned his images as personal narratives, drawing upon fantasies of bohemianism among other desires and impulses, particularly Oedipal.[12]  During his adolescence, Manet’s father, Auguste, a civil court judge and a chevalier in the prestigious Legion of Honor, conceived a baby with the family’s piano teacher.  To spare the bourgeois respectability of the Manet name, Auguste burdened his son with the illegitimate fruits of his liaison—Manet later married the piano teacher and legally adopted her son, Léon. 

Manet’s version of Ecce Homo in Jesus Mocked by Soldiers and his painting of Hamlet, The Tragic Actor, share in common the theme of Oedipal drama.  As one scholar has suggested, ‘The struggle to confront the will of the father emerges as a theme in both the Christ pictures and the Hamlet pictures, and it shapes Manet’s representation of the self.’[13]  Passive or active victims of their destiny respectively, Jesus Christ and Hamlet are the most explicit figures of Oedipal tragedy—Hamlet, the Oedipal son, who is unable to commit the act of revenge that is his father’s explicit will, and Jesus Christ who is commanded by God, the Father, to fulfill the Old Testament prophecy by sacrificing his life to atone for the sins of humanity. 

The unfolding drama that is Manet’s ‘family romance’ may be understood in light of Lacan’s theories on narcissism and the realm of the Imaginary.  Like a hall of mirrors, the Imaginary is the realm of appearances, roles and masks that we wear, an ideal image that we project to the world.  Thus, imaginary identification corresponds to, ‘the image in which we appear likeable to ourselves, with the image representing “what we would like to be.”’[14] 

After painting Jesus Mocked by Soldiers, Manet never painted another major religious painting, even though the martyred image of Christ continued to haunt him.  In1880, Manet spoke of his wish to paint the crucifixion to his close friend and biographer, Antonin Proust:

There is always one thing I’ve always had an ambition to do. 

I would like to paint a Crucifixion.  You are the only one who

could pose for this (scene) as I understand it.  While I was painting

your portrait, this idea pursued me.  It was an obsession.  I rendered

you as Christ dressed in a hat and overcoat with a rose in your lapel. 

That is, a Christ going to visit the Magdalene. But the Crucifixion,

what a symbol!  One could search until the beginning of time and

find nothing comparable.  Minerva is good.  Venus is good.  But

the heroic image and the image of love are never worth as much

as that of suffering.  It is at the very core of humanity.  It is its


                The ironic tone of Manet’s commentary is consistent with the artist’s penchant for wit, but his closing words seem to reveal something far more serious and reflective.  We must be wary of projecting our own ideas into a text, but at the same time, we must acknowledge that a single statement may reveal multiple levels of meaning, some of which are even unconscious to the speaker.  As Brombert suggests, Manet’s desire to paint the universal symbol of martyrdom may in fact reveal his identification with the persecuted image of Christ:  ‘He had been mocked, insulted, reviled, rejected.  Why would he not have been haunted by the image of a suffering Christ?’[16]

Manet continued to grapple with the theme of tragic martyrdom in 1866.  The Tragic Actor has been viewed as an autobiographical portrait of Manet’s personal feelings of depression, failure and impotence.[17]   Manet’s portrait of Faure in the role of Hamlet (Fig. 3) may provide a clue to the artist’s return to the theme of suicide between the years 1877 and 1881.  According to George Minois, a scholar who has explored the theme of suicide in Shakespeare’s Hamlet at length, ‘The deep-rooted temptation of suicide has never been expressed more tellingly.’[18]  The key theme in the play resides in Hamlet’s existential dilemma:  ‘To be, or not to be:  that is the question…’ Perhaps even more conspicuous is Hamlet’s metaphysical query of suicide:

…To die; to sleep—

No more; and by a sleep to say we end

The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks

That flesh is heir to.  ‘Tis a consummation

Devoutly to be wish’d.

To die, to sleep—

To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub,

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,

When we have shuffled off this moral coil,

Must give us pause; there’s the respect.[19] 

Hamlet’s soliloquy recalls a line from a book that Manet re-read during the period whenhe painted Le Suicidé, the autobiography of the romantic philosophe, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, entitled The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.[20] 

A literary self-portrait by the ‘Father of Romanticism,’ Rousseau’s Confessions is a self-portrait of the eccentric visionary as a heroic martyr of artistic verity.  It is possible that Manet’s interest in Rousseau resides in his identification with the philosophe’s tragic plight.  Vilified by the church as a heretic and forsaken by his colleagues, Rousseau was driven to exile as a result of his Social Contract and his scandalous novel, Émile.  Ascetic in his sacrifice of wealth and fame and ostracized for his unorthodox beliefs, Rousseau was deified by nineteenth-century romantic intellectuals and artists in his saintly pursuit for artistic truth—he personified the romantic cult of the individual; he was the quintessential melancholic:

The deterioration of my health affected my mood and tempered

the ardour of my fantasies…How sweet it would have been to die

at such a moment…My soul could have departed in peace, untouched

by that cruel sense of man’s injustice.[21]

Manet’s possible identification with the tragic lives of Jesus Christ, Hamlet and Rousseau situates him within a larger nineteenth-century intellectual and literary discourse of romantic suicide.  As an unequivocal symbol of romantic angst and masochistic self-worship, the theme of suicide was embraced by nineteenth-century avant-garde intellectuals and writers such as Gustave Flaubert and Georges Sand.  As the darker side of the romantic cult of the individual, suicide is the extreme manifestation of the existential alienation that the romantic incurred as a result of his/her creative wish to sink into the private recesses of the mind.

The French sociologist and philosopher, Émile Durkheim, calls this self-inflicted, isolative mentality, ‘excessive individualism,’ a state of mind in which the individual ego, his/her private interests, take precedence over the collective, or social ego.  According to Durkheim, excessive individualism is the central cause of suicide in egoistic individuals who devote their lives to individual interests rather than to collective causes and work that consequently, may have saved them from falling into isolation and depression due to their private exile. [22]  

According to Durkheim, the egoist’s heightened self-interest is ironically linked to his/her demise:

The individual alone is not sufficient end for his activity.  He is

too little.  He is not only hemmed in spatially; he is also strictly

limited temporally.  When, therefore, we have no other object

than ourselves we cannot avoid the thought that our efforts will

finally end in nothingness, since we ourselves will disappear. 

But annihilation terrifies us.  Under these conditions one would

lose courage to live, that is, to act and struggle since nothing

would remain of our exertions. [23]


At the root of Durkheim’s ‘egoistic suicide’ is the egoist’s terrifying, narcissistic realization that no part of him will survive in death. 

A portrait of Durkheim’s ‘egoisitic suicide,’ Le Suicidé may reflect Manet’s personal feelings of alienation and melancholy that were the result of his avant-garde quest to revolutionize the art world.  Manet’s illness and failure to charm the artistic community may have lead to his identification with the psychological turmoil and desperation of the victim in Le Suicidé.  Donating the painting to Cabaner’s auction, Manet may have imagined the victim a Baudelairean Christ-figure akin to the romantic composer and himself—misunderstood and marginalized by a hostile world.  Arms outstretched and his gaze tilted upward, Manet’s victim elicits the ultimate expression of human suffering—the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ.   Viewed as a modern crucifixion, Manet’s Le Suicidé represents the modern, secular Christ:  the dandy.  As the modern Christ, the dandy embodies the secular age of self-worship and materialism that Durkheim coins, ‘excessive individualism.’

The victim in Manet’s Le Suicidé appears to be a Parisian dandy much like Manet.   In his essay, ‘Two Notes on Manet,’ E.D. Lilley draws the parallel between Manet and the victim:  ‘Manet’s unfortunate may not be an avid player dressed for the gaming rooms, but an ordinary well-to-do citizen, even an artist, dressed for dinner, just as Manet himself would have done.’[24]  

Baudelaire’s hero of modern life, the Parisian dandy is gifted with a dual nature, that of the visionary poet and the cultivated man of the world, he transcends all worldly classifications—he is at one bohemian and bourgeois.   As a narcissist, the dandy is engaged in a fantasy with an imaginary other through his behavior and appearance:

Narcissism needs other.  It needs an other to impress, to model

the self on, or to respond to.  Narcissistic behavior is thus especially involved with social fashion and social status.[25]

Manet stages a dynamic tour de force of dandihood in his painting, Music and the Tuileries (Fig. 5).  In the image, the concert is merely a pretext for narcissistic display.  Gazing out from the image, the fashionably dressed dandy is there to see and be seen.

Manet’s translation of the timeless, sacred theme of the Crucifixion into a thoroughly modern language, Le Suicidé may reveal a psychological projection of the artist’s narcissistic, ideal self.  In this case, narcissism implies ‘a form of desire in which the ego is willing to entertain change as a movement toward that ever mythical ‘greater being.’  The secular Christ that Manet pictures in the imaginary space of the painting may be an ego ideal with whom Manet identifies with in the Lacanian sense. [26]

Situating Manet’s Le Suicidé within the romantic cult of individuality, we may view the painting as a narcissistic, masochistic fantasy of self-destruction and self-inflicted martyrdom.  Such is what Baudelaire imagined in his poem, The Tormentor:

I am the weapon and the scar!  The slap in the face, the stung

cheek!  I am the severed limbs, the rack, the tortured and the


The ultimate narcissistic threat that Manet faced, that of falling into obscurity, potentially resulting in physical and emotional oblivion, may account for the visual link between the painting and the glorified image of suffering in the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ.  Manet may have harbored fantasies of a glorified death to cope with his narcissistic fear of mortality.  As an ego defense, narcissism entails powerful fantasies of grandiosity and importance that counteract intense feelings of ego fragmentation.  As a state of omnipotence in which ‘all things beyond the self can be inhabited and appropriated without pain and resistance,’ Manet’s staging of death in Le Suicidé endows the artist with the god-like power to witness and control his own hour of death.[28]

As an attempted suicide, or an incomplete act, suffering rather than death is the subject of Le Suicidé.  Because the victim is wounded in the abdominal area, we may assume that he has been suffering indefinitely.  The location of the wound suggests that the victim’s actions are a cry for help rather than a definitive wish to die.  As such, the victim’s act engages an imagined beholder who will bear witness and/or react to his suffering.  The element of being discovered is an integral part of Manet’s unconscious identification with the martyred victim in the painting:   ‘Imaginary identification is always identification on behalf of a certain gaze in the Other.  We should always ask:  for whom is the subject enacting this role?’[29] 

Viewed as a narcissistic gesture, the suicidal act in Le Suicidé posits an imaginary other, or a witness to the event.  Michael Fried is one of several scholars who have addressed the theatricality of Manet’s paintings, specifically the curious dynamic between Manet’s characters and their intended beholder.[30]  Manet’s silent engagement with an intended audience, specifically his father, recurs in the artist’s third study of Hamlet, a pastel entitled Hamlet Confronting the Ghost of His Father (Fig. 6).  The pastel of Hamlet has been explored as Manet’s Oedipal defiance of his father’s demands.  Whether Manet’s Le Suicidé stages a similar dynamic, an unconscious gesture of defiance toward his father, the Oedipal model provides us with a way of viewing the painting as a narcissistic fantasy propelled by an unconscious desire for attention, praise, or sympathy.

Curiously, the sparse furnishings of the impoverished quarters in Le Suicidé imply something about the identity of the victim that is at odds with his bourgeois costume.  Clues to the man’s character may reside in the details, specifically the painting above the bed. The visual connection between Manet’s secular hero, the Parisian dandy, and the Christian Messiah is further enhanced by the artist’s pictorial allusion to monasticism and piety in the object of the victim’s gaze, a painting of a hooded monk (Fig. 7). [31]  Scholars have used this clue to interpret Le Suicidé as a portrait of the deceased artist, Holtzapffel, as the artist specialized in medieval themes. 

Scholars have failed to make the connection between the tiny painting and two paintings in Manet’s oeuvre, namely Monk in Prayer (Fig. 8), a portrait that may have been inspired by Manet’s life-long friendship with the vicar of La Madeleine Church in Paris, Abbé Augustin-Jean Hurel, and an engraving of 1861, entitled In Prayer (Fig. 9).[32] Scholars are in agreement regarding the source for Manet’s Monk in Prayer, namely Francisco de Zurbarán’s St. Francis in Meditation (Fig. 10).  Manet is said to have drawn his inspiration from a wood engraving of the work found in Charles Blanc’s Histoire des peintres of 1854. [33] 

The striking similarity between Manet’s Monk in Prayer, the engraving, In Prayer, and Zurbarán’s St. Francis in Meditation,  evident in the hooded cloak, the kneeling pose, and the bearded face, seems to confirm that Zurbarán’s picture served as a visual model for both Manet’s painting and the engraving.  Although the hooded personage in Le Suicidé does not appear to be based on the composition of Monk in Prayer, it does in fact closely resemble the monk in Manet’s engraving.  Both personages wear a hooded cloak that enshrouds their face and they both have large, meditative eyes.

St. Francis occupied a special place in the French heart and imagination.  In his embrace of poverty and his espousal of a universal brotherhood of all creatures, Francis was especially beloved to Ernest Renan, the author of a popular nineteenth-century biography of Jesus Christ, who wrote of Saint Francis:  ‘After Jesus Francis of Assisi has been the only perfect Christian.’ [34]  Francis modeled his life on Christ.  He lived an ascetic life of poverty, but his boundless faith in God endowed him with the physical attributes of Christ’s suffering and humanity, the stigmata.  On a trip to Venice, Manet remarked to the French painter, Charles Toché, ‘I should like to be the Saint Francis of still life.’[35]  Whether the tone of the statement was ironic or serious, Manet’s comment reveals, on some level, his identification with Saint Francis. 

The dichotomy between the divine realm, elicited by Saint Francis, and the worldly realm, the dandy, may allude to a split in the identity of the victim.  As a disguised self-portrait, Le Suicidé structures the psychic rift between Manet’s private self and his public identity, or the rupture between the dominion of the unconscious that is the key to one’s true self—Lacan’s Real[36]—and the masked and potentially alienated self—Lacan’s Imaginary:

Life in the realm of the imaginary (which, in Lacan’s view, is where

most ordinary, conventional living takes place) is experienced in a hall

of mirrors, organized around mirages.  The self each of us takes himself

or herself to be is as much a social creation…constructed out of reflections of perspectives of others.  We strive to be characters we are not, with various intense needs in relation to other characters who, because they

are also social creations, also are not.[37]

In his landmark study of Baudelaire’s poetry, Charles Baudealire:  A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, Walter Benjamin’s characterization of the Parisian metropolis, ‘the phantasmagoria’ of modern Paris, bears a close resemblance to Lacan’s Imaginary.  In the text, Benjamin analyzes the social fabric of urban Capitalist, Second Empire Paris through the lens of Baudelaire’s mythic hero of modern life in the poet’s famous collection of bohemian tales, Paris Spleen.  The central character of Baudelaire’s fantasy of modern life, the flâneur is a self-possessed Parisian dandy who delights in wandering the busy streets of Paris, anonymous and self-contained.  Anchoring Baudelaire’s character in the contemporary realities of Capitalist Paris, Benjamin explores how the flâneur’s idealization of the modern city is an escapist myth that blinds him to the social ills of society as well as it protects him from the alienating effect of the metropolis.  Ironically, the flâneur’s wish to immerse himself in the crowd yet remain arrogant and aloof is a defense against being marginalized:  

The brutal indifference, the unfeeling isolation of each in his private interest, becomes more repellent and offensive, the more these individuals are crowded together, within limited space.  The flaneur only seems to break through ‘unfeeling isolation of each in his private interest’ by filling the hollow space created in him by such isolation, with the borrowed—and fictitious—isolation of strangers.[38]

The flâneur’s public bravado is merely an illusion of confidence that keeps him from the painful truth of who he really is, a spoke in the wheel of the Capitalist machine.  Unaware that he is merely a pawn, a commodity rather than a human being, the flâneur is subsumed in the larger spectacle, ‘the phantasmagoria’ of modern Paris.

Le Suicidé structures Manet’s psychic rupture, or the conflict between the realm of the Real and that of the Imaginary.   The presence of Saint Francis may evoke dwelling in the Real as someone who is emancipated from ego consciousness, liberated from his narcissistic dependence upon the other, and unburdened by the masochistic bondage with both his father and the public, whereas the dandy elicits the experience of life in the Imaginary as the masked self eternally haunted by desire, vulnerable, objectified and on display, suffering at the hands of an unjust public.    

The juxtaposition of disparate destinations in Le Suicidé, the world of materialism and masks that we don, evidenced in the evening clothes, and the thwarted, untouchable promise of spiritual salvation that is elicited by the presence of the monk who is physically out of reach, may reflect Manet’s split identity.  Driven by narcissistic grandiosity—fantasies of fame and public accolades—Manet’s identity is bound to an agonizing, masochistic cycle of narcissistic joy and injury that mirrors the state of purgatory that his victim inhabits.  Still breathing, trapped in a state of ambivalence both physically and psychically, Manet’s victim contemplates the leap from the world of material possessions, glamour, and status, to the unknown abyss of the afterworld.  Is it terror that leads this potentially spiritually bankrupt man to hold on for dear life, gasping for air?









[1] Mary Matthews Gedo, “Final Reflections, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère as Manet’s Adieu to Art and Life,” Looking at Art from the Inside Out, The Psychoiconographic Approach to Modern Art (Cambridge U P; Cambridge, 1994), p. 19.  In “Final Reflections,” Gedo explores how Manet’s final Salon painting, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, reveals the artist’s musings on mortality, particularly the mourning of his youthful days as a Parisian flâneur.  She situates Le Suicidé within this mental framework.  Unlike Gedo, scholars have explored Manet’s preoccupation with death and dying without acknowledging the personal nature of the paintings.    Because Le Suicidé does not conform to the avant-garde stereotype of Manet, the emotionally detached, social observer of modern Paris, the painting remains elusive and has not been researched to the same extent as earlier works, for example Manet’s Dead Torreador.  A recurring theme in Manet’s oeuvre, scholars have noted the artist’s intrigue with death and dying.  They attribute Manet’s images of death and related themes to the dual loss that he faced in the 1860’s, namely the death of his close friend, the poet, Charles Baudelaire in 1867, and that of his father in 1862.

[2]Adolphe Tabarant, Manet et ses oeuvres (Guimard; Paris, 1947), p. 411.  In The Passionate Eye:  Impressionist and Other Master Paintings from the E.G. Bührle Collection, exh. cat. (Artemis Verlag; Zurich, 1990), Cat. 27.

[3] Linda Nochlin, Realism (Penguin Books; London, 1971), p. 75:  “Equally devoid of moral or emotional implication is Manet’s The Suicide, where the contemporary figure, in evening dress—we suspect at once that this may have to do with gambling debts—is sprawled on his iron bedstead in a simple room, at the very instant of death, the gun still clutched in his limp right hand…”

[4]E.D. Lilley, “Two Notes on Manet,” Burlington Magazine, Vol.132, April 1990, p. 267. Lilley rejects the notion that the man committed suicide as a result of gambling debts:  “there is nothing in Manet’s image specifically to signify a gambler down on his luck.” 

[5] The artist did in fact witness the suicide of a boy whom the artist rescued from poverty, hiring him to model for the painting, Boy with Cherries.  In 1860, the boy hanged himself in Manet’s studio as the result of a quibble between the artist and the boy.  However, there is no apparent connection between Le Suicidé, painted in the late 1870’s or early 1880’s, and the boy’s suicide. 

[6] For a discussion of the painting and the 1865 performance, see David Solkin, “Philibert Rouvière:  Édouard Manet's L'acteur Tragique,” Burlington Magazine, Vol. 117, no. 872, November 1975, pp. 702-14. 

[7]Émile Zola in Lilley, “Two Notes on Manet,” p.  269:  “Terrible vie que cette vie de l’artiste lâché sur le pavé de Paris, avec le clou d’une idée fixe enfoncé dans le crane!  On le plaisante, on le traite de bohême, de raté; et la vérité est qu’il meurt de son art.  Je ne connais pas de folie plus respectable.  Même s’il se trompe sur ses forces créatrices, même s’il s’égare dans des subtilités de théoricien, cet homme-là n’est-il pas touchant et n’a-t-il pas sa grandeur, qui est un soldat perdu de l’idée et qui finit toujours par tomber pour elle?”

[8] According to the Nationale, the figure of Faure appeared contorted and unbalanced, “a lifeless and unbalanced marionette.”  In addition to the awkward appearance of the figure, Manet endowed Faure with an overabundance of melodramatic fervor.  In Le Charivari, the popular illustrator, Cham, parodied the portrait with the epithet, “Hamlet, gone mad, has had himself painted by Manet.”  In George Heard Hamilton, Manet and His Critics (W.W. Norton; New York, 1969), pp. 203-05.

[9] Bradford Collins, “The Dialectics of Desire,” 12 Views of Manet’s Bar, ed. Bradford Collins (Princeton U P; Princeton, 1996), p. 116:  “The self is neither inchoate nor a mere product of social forces but a discrete entity capable of mustering meaningful responses (either of disagreement or dissent) to the forces that would shape it.  To say that the old Cartesian author/creator is dead is not to say that some identity (however mobile and constructed), with personal views and aims (however contradictory or uncertain), does not stand in somoe meaningful relation to his or her work.”

[10] Beth Archer Brombert, Edouard Manet, Rebel in a Frock Coat (Little, Brown; Boston, 1996), p. 171.

[11] Charles Baudelaire, Lettres à Charles Baudelaire, ed. Claude and Vincenette Pichois (Neuchâtel, 1973), p. 1018.  In Brombert, Rebel in a Frock Coat, 169.

[12] The Baudelairean persona of the avant-garde artist as a bohemian recurs in Manet’s series of ragpicker images.  A modern Messiah, the bohemian renounces worldly needs and lives an ascetic lifestyle.  Although he is marginalized for his antisocial ways, the bohemian is spiritually nourished by his poetic sensibility.  Manet’s defiance in the public realm, staged in his theatrical salon rebuff of the juste-mileu, is mirrored in the bohemian Christ figure.

[13] Nancy Locke, Manet and the Family Romance (Princeton U P; New Jersey, 2001), p. 145. 

[14] Madan Sarup, Jacques Lacan (U of Toronto P; Toronto, 1992), p. 103.  Lacan initially developed his idea of the Imaginary in his 1936 essay “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of I.”

[15] Antonin Proust, Souvenirs (H. Laurens; Paris, 1913), p. 123.  In Michael Paul Driskel, “Manet, Naturalism and the Politics of Christian Art,Arts Vol. 60, no. 3, November 1985, p. 46: “Whether the ironical and somewhat blasphemous equation of Proust—described as a boulevardier about to visit a modern Magdalen (a type exemplified, of course, by Olympia)—with Christ should be considered a simple pleasantry or a reflection of Manet’s skepticism in matters religious must remain open to question.”

[16] Brombert, Rebel in a Frock Coat, p. 418. 

[17] Solkin, “Philibert Rouvière:  Édouard Manet's L'acteur Tragique,” p. 708. Solkin views Manet’s  Tragic Actor in light of the public wave of sympathy for Rouvière generated by the romantic intellectual community, particularly Théophile Gautier.  Solkin alludes to Manet’s identification with the tragic plight of Rouvière as both experienced a crisis in their careers, a ‘fall from grace,’ in the public eye:  “Gautier’s description of Rouvière as a martyr to the indifference of the masses must surely have appealed to Manet at a time when he, too, felt himself persecuted by a hostile public.  A great actor, whose love of beauty consoled him while he saw others, less deserving than himself, enjoying the success he had failed to achieve—this image could not have helped but strike Manet as particularly relevant to his own situation.”

[18] George Minois, “To Be or Not to Be, The First Crisis of Conscience in Europe,” History of Suicide: Voluntary Death in Western Culture (Johns Hopkins U P; Baltimore, 1999), p. 87.

[19] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3, Scene I, William Shakespeare, Hamlet, ed. Susanne L. Wofford (Bedford Books; Boston, 1994), pp. 81-2.

[20] In a letter to Manet, the Symbolist poet and friend of the artist, Stéphane Mallarmé, commented: “I reread, thinking of you who did likewise last year, Jean-Jacque’s Confessions; yes, it’s a superb book…” In The Selected Letters of Stéphane Mallarmé, ed., trans. Rosemary Lloyd, (U of Chicago P; Chicago, 1988), p. 134.  In George Mauner, Manet-Peintre-Philosophe:  A Study of the Painter’s Themes (Pennsylvania State U P; University Park, 1975), p. 5.  Mauner mentions this particular reference to Rousseau’s Confessions, yet he does not go further in pursuing the possible connection between Manet and Rousseau.  This is the only book we know of that Manet read twice.  For this reason, it is possible that there exists a connection between Rousseau’s autobiography and Manet’s images of artistic martyrdom.

[21] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confessions, trans. Angela Scholar (Oxford U P; Oxford, 2000), p. 216.

[22] Émile Durkheim, Suicide: A Study in Sociology, trans. John A Spaulding and George Simpson (The Free P; Illinois, 1951), p. 209.

[23] Durkheim, Suicide, 210:  “The more weakened the groups to which he belongs, the less he depends on them, the more he consequently depends on himself and recognizes no other rules of conduct than what are founded on his private interests.  If we agree to call this state egoism, in which the individual ego asserts itself to excess in the face of the social ego and at its expense, we may call egoistic the special type of suicide springing from excessive individualism.”

[24] Lilley, “Two Notes on Manet,” p. 268.

[25]Marshall W. Alcorn, Jr., Narcissism and the Literary Libido, Rhetoric Text, and Subjectivity (New York U P; New York, 1994), p. 14.

[26] Alcorn, p. 15.  For the post-Freudian expansion on Freud’s concept of narcissism, also see Ellie Ragland-Sullivan, ‘Narcissism and Identification,’ Jacques Lacan and the Philosophy of Psychoanalysis (U of Illinois P; Urbana, 1986), pp. 31-46.  In Narcissism and the Literary Libido, Marshall W. Alcorn explores literary creativity as a healthy narcissistic self-investment.  Because the object of the narcissistic investment in literature and art implies an imagined other, creative narcissism extends beyond Freud’s concept of primary narcissism that is addressed to the self-invested libidinal identification between the self (ideal ego) and the love object (ego ideal).  In Freud’s “narcissistic neuroses,” among them homosexuality, megalomania, and schizophrenia, the individual is unable to move beyond the libidinal self-absorption of infancy.  This prevents the healthy cathexis of the ego-libido to the object-libido and manifests as psychotic neuroses, for example schizophrenia, and autoerotic love in the homosexual.  Among others who have expanded on Freud’s pathological theory of narcissism, Alcorn addresses the narcissistic absorption that normal individuals experience in the creative process, a point that is explored by the psychoanalyst, Heinz Kohut.

[27] Charles Baudelaire, “The Self-Tormentor,” Charles Baudelaire, Complete Poems, trans. Walter Martin (Routledge; New York, 2002), p. 209.

[28] Alcorn, Jr., Narcissism and the Literary Libido, p. 168. 

[29] Sarup, Jacques Lacan, p. 103.

[30] Michael Fried, Manet’s Modernism (The U of Chicago P; Chicago, 1996).  Manet implies the beholder through the gaze, for example the self-satisfied smirk of Victorine in Olympia, and the enigmatic gesture of the figure on the far right in Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (based on Manet’s brother, Eugène).

[31] Mauner, Peintre-Philosophe, as in note 16, p. 142.

[32] Manet painted two portraits of Abbé Hurel.  The first portrait, painted in 1859, is lost.  The second portrait was painted in 1875.  Although the exact date is unknown, scholars have situated the subject and style of Manet’s Monk in Prayer within the context of his two Salon paintings, The Dead Christ with  Angels (Salon of 1864) and Jesus Mocked by the Soldiers (Salon of 1865).  Monk in Prayer was exhibited at Manet’s private show in 1867. Manet often inserted self-reflexive motifs into his compositions, particularly the sword, which has been interpreted as a symbolic reference to his father’s illegitimate son (Manet’s adopted son), Léon Koëlla Leenhoff.  Frequently, the artist used symbolic attributes to refer to himself. For a discussion of Manet’s personal symbolism, see Brombert, Rebel in a Frock Coat, pp. 85-6 and Theodore Reff, “The Symbolism of Manet’s Frontispiece Etchings,” Burlington Magazine Vol. 104, no. 710, May 1962, pp. 182-7.

[33] Manet/Velázquez:  The French Taste for Spanish Painting, exh. cat. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art; New York, 2003), p. 493.  The wood engraving was modeled on an etching by the artist, Masson; Manet may have seen it at the Salon of 1855.  Manet may have encounted Zurburán’s Saint Francis in Meditation during his visits with Antonin Proust to the Galarie Espagnole during his youth.  At the Galarie Espagnole, the work was entitled Saint Francis with Stigmata.  It was sold to the National Gallery, London in 1853.

[34] Adrian House, Francis of Assisi (HiddenSpring; New Jersey, 2001), p. 9.  I am referring to Ernest Renan’s 1863 Life of Jesus, a positivist history of Jesus Christ that has been singularly pointed out with reference to the non-idealized figure of Christ in Manet’s religious painting, Jesus Mocked by Soldiers.

[35]Manet quoted in George Mauner, Manet, The Still-Life Paintings, exh. cat., (Harry Abrams, Inc.; New York, 2000), p. 12:  “These Italians bore one after a time with their allegories and their “Gerusalemme Liberata” and “Orlando Furioso,’ and all that rubbish.  A painter can say all he wants to with fruit or flowers or even clouds…You know I should like to be the Saint Francis of still-life.”

[36] Lacan’s Real is a concept that represents a somewhat ideal state of being wherein there is a harmony between the parts of the self:  the Real (the unconscious), the Imaginary (related to Freud’s ego), and the Symbolic order of language (loosely akin to Freud’s superego) that leads to a state of being wherein one is  liberated from the strictures of society and ego-consciousness.

[37] Stephen A. Mitchell and Margaret Black, Freud and Beyond, A History of Modern Psychoanalytic Thought (BasicBooks; New York, 1995), p. 197.  In Lacanian terms, we may view the painting as an emblem of unfulfilled desire.  Because Lacan’s concept of narcissism is based upon misrecognition of self (méconnaissance), our infantile image of the self as an ideal during the mirror stage, or our idealized vision of self in the eyes of others, is merely an illusion that is tied to the social realm of appearances.  Because the ego is fashioned from our initial, false image of self, we are ultimately alienated from both self and the outside world:  “If the object is only ever graspable as a mirage, the mirage of unity…every object relation can only be infected with a fundamental uncertainty by it…” Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan:  Book I:  Freud’s Papers on Technique, 1953-1954, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller an John Forrestor, Norton; New York, 1988), p. 169.  In Mitchell and Black, Freud and Beyond, p. 197.

[38] Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudealire:  A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. Harry Zohn (London, 1973), p. 58.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Holly Paradis "Le Suicide: Manet's Modern Crucifixion.". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available http://psyartjournal.com/article/show/paradis-le_suicide_manets_modern_crucifixion. March 4, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 1, 2005, Published: June 12, 2005. Copyright © 2005 Holly Paradis