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An Artist's Swan Song
As we grow older, pass the age of fifty, begin to think of retirement, pass sixty, finally do retire, and have a little more time on our hands, we begin to contemplate the fact that, though we don't any of us know exactly how many more years we have to paint, it is a finite number and it's not getting any larger. Arthritis begins to be felt. The glasses begin getting thicker and thicker. Cataract surgery and joint replacements become table conversation, and it begins to dawn upon us that if there remains any great paintings we want yet to do, now is the time to get started on them if we desire any degree of certainty that they will ever be finished. And finally, we come to the realisation that we had best be choosing our swan song. It's almost like writing a last will and testament. How do we want to be remembered?

The French artist, Edouard Manet faced this dark question at an age when today, most of us have never given it a passing thought. He was 50. For several years he had suffered from locomotor ataxia. He could no longer stand for more than a few minutes and as the disease progressed, eventually had to give up walking due to the severe pain in his legs. He tried hydrotherapy and massages but found them more torturous than the disease itself. He switched to pastels for much of his late work because he found them less demanding. He tried retirement in the country but was so bored he quickly fled back to the city where he threw himself into the social life he'd so relished in his youth. He painted a few portraits and in 1880-81 an oil and pastel Interior of a Cafe. It is a rather sad, deserted painting, obviously the work of a sick man.

But it was the inspiration for one last great painting, A Bar at the Follies Bergere, painted in 1882. Although he sketched at the follies, the painting itself was done in his studio where he hired an actual barmaid to stand behind a marble-topped bar littered with bottles, fruit, glassware, and backed by a mirror in which he reflected the gay environment of the night-club and even the face of the would-be viewer. He could work on it for only short periods of time and even then the effort must have been excruciating. Follies was not his last painting, however. The following year he once more returned to the country where on rare occasions he painted outdoors, drawing upon his Impressionist tendencies. His final works were of the bouquets of flowers sent to him by well-wishers from all over the country. Late in April, 1883, the maid of his friend, Mery Laurent, arrived with still more blossoms. He asked her to sit for a portrait holding them. The unfinished work, in pastels, was found on his easel the day after his death on April 30, 1883. He was 51.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
8 March 1999

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