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Libido Intuendi : Rubens - Manet Art and desire to look
L’art et le désir de regarder

"Libido intuendi" corresponds to our desire to look, to watch, to discover through the eyes. Positive side of voyeurism, it gives acess to knowledge.

This concept is at stake in the works discussed here.


In 1620 Lucas Vorsterman produced a new engraving according to a composition by Peter Paul Rubens : Suzanne and the old men. « Seated in the middle of the panel, seen from the back , slightly turned to the right, watching the viewer, Suzanne crosses her legs. Her two arms folded over her breast in an attempt to conceal her nudity with a veil which the old man behind her wants to rip off. The second old man, on the right of the engraving, asks her, with a movement of his hand, to let go. The right top side of the engraving shows a wall, the angle of which is covered by rustic masonry. At the right of the panel, water sprouting from a fountain into a bowl and flowing over into a water basin below, in which Suzanne’s foot is immersed. Behind her, on the lip of the basin lies a comb, a vase, a necklace and rings.*1 »

In 1861, 200 years later, Manet portrays ’his’ Suzanne – Miss Suzanne Leenhoff – with whom he had a secret love affair in a composition he called ’The Nymph Surprised’.

Taking a closer look at Manet’s nymph, her pose unmistakenly ressembles Suzanne’s figure in the engraving after Rubens. Beyond the pose as such, both oeuvres are all about the ’gaze’.

A true gaze is all about desire. Alfred de Musset




« 15 years ago I discovered Vosterman’s panel ’Suzanne and the old men’ at a warehouse sale in Brussels. It turns to be at the origine of one of the most significant looks in Western art history. It immediately made me think of Victorine Meurent’s gaze in ’Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe’ by Manet. Yet Rubens’ 1620 engraving, that I had bought should actually be linked to ’La Nymphe surpise’, a painting by Edouard Manet from the early 1860s, that is now in the Fine Arts Museum of Buenos Aires. Suzanne, the painter’s partner is shown as a nymph. »

Suzanne and the Old Men.

« According to Rubens himself, ’Suzanne and the Old Men’ is one of Vosterman’s better productions. Intellectually, the theme of ’Suzanne and the Old Men’ could be interpreted as an allegory of chastity. The juicy subject of the bathing Suzanne, spied upon and harrased by two old men is equally linked to the ’ill-matched’ couple, a recurring theme since the Renaissance. Rubens was right about the quality of the engraving, Vorsterman succeeds in rendering the delicacy of the bodies and the subtle darkening of the shades. The engraver managed to improve the representation of the different textures using a dotted line technique, with small scratches and letting the underlying lines of eau-forte resurface in the final result. This mixed technique is totally different from the regular and smooth lines of the engraving of Saint Francis. »*2 « Suzanne is the chaste biblical figure, whose body is holy. Contrary to Diane, Suzanne strolls around in her garden all by herself, metaphor of a personal and private surrounding, metaphor of the sacred body, destined to be raped. Every Suzanne created in the history of painting shows signs of a ravishment initiated by a gaze, a visual intrusion staged by Rembrandt and Tintoret, that enlightens Rubens’ aesthetic choices between filiation and rupture.

This is the story of an artistic journey, harping on the same patterns, modifying them here and there, to fit the story to the artist’s illusionary universe.

The tale goes like this : Suzanne knows the surroundings very well and feels confident and secure. The weather being hot, she wants to bathe ; the servants leave her and they forget to close the gate behind them, turning the secure space into a dangerous ’in camera’ situation. Two old men, who are attracted by her since a long time, hide every day to spy on her ; this daily ritual becomes more and more obsessing and soon enough rules their entire lives, according to the definition of passion :

« The two old men who watch her day after day enter for her stroll, come to want her. They lose their senses, omitting to look up to Heaven and forgetting its righteous judgements [...] Both of them stricken by passion, they hide their torment from one another. Ashamed to admit their desire to sleep with her, they nonetheless use guile and cunning each day to observe her. There was nobody there : except two old men on the look-out. »*3

Every single day, our watchers are torn between prohibition and transgression, one not going without the next. The repetitive nature of this voyeur behaviour, taking pleasure in hiding and as such prolonging the excitement of seeing without being seen, indicates from the very start that the interdict needs to be maintained in order to enjoy it. Actually acting out implies the metamorphosis of the erotic experience. As days go by, the desire that haunts the old men does not fade, on the contrary, it becomes pervasive, structuring their very being : « the immediate erotic torment triggers an all exceeding feeling » , so that even the darkest perspectives of such desire fall into oblivion. Don’t they know that desire and dismay are intextricably linked, that intense pleasure does not go without phantom of death, the same as the excitement of seeing can only be measured with blindness ?

A new aim : showing oneself

« Hanna Arendt states that being on earth, is showing oneself. Therefore, it is also seeing what is being shown. However, can we pretend that the image and the gaze are divided, each to its own side, both wisely waiting the beginning of their liaison ? »*4

The tale of the bathing Suzanne renders the exact moment where both poles come together seeing and being seen ; the old men coming out from their hiding place illustrate both sides one after the other of this scopique drive.

Lacan, supporting this freudian thesis, tells us : « That, what we watch, can not be seen. If, following the introduction of the other the structure of desire appears, it is only wholesome achieved in it’s returned reversed form, which is the true active drive. »*5

So, in the search of ’seeing’ , the action of looking is exterior, one could even say that the gaze is turned toward the outside as soon as it is desiring : the eyes are ’the organs that penetrate beyond the outside *6 says Marc Le Bot. In artistic paining, the matter of the gaze is expressed in these words. The painting and it’s observer are ready for a scopique exchange, through the interval that separates them, this interstice where the exploration of the look can take place, upheld by any painting.

« When eyes meet eyes, if this gaze are maintained, the bodies will be petrified, they will be stunned. »*7 *8



Deviation and durability of Rubens :

Manet and his Nymph taken by surprise.
Referring to the Muse is nothing new, but with Rubens it becomes an paramount aethetic marking his artistic productions over his final years. It is as if through this tale, Rubens was painting and telling his own desire for his beloved wife.

In this baroque indistinction, Rubens juggles with the paradox of the holy discourse and paganism, with morality and subversion, while secretely speaking about his own loves :

« Nothing is more thrustworthy to refer to for the present and personal universe, than the universe of myths. They plunge their living roots in repressed fantasies and secret desires. »*9



Etude for Nymphe surprise, 1860. Manet

In 1861, Manet refers to this ’enamoured’ setting and places himself in a definite manner in Rubens’ lineage. Initially exihibited under the name ’Nymph and satyre’, then as ’Nymph’, the painting will receive its final title ’The Nymph Suprised’, subsequent to many alterations made by the painter ; this Suprised Nymph turns out to be a remnant of a completely different painting at the start. Indeed, the bather is the result of a thorough reworking, of a profound rewriting of the original motif.

The conception of the ’The Nymph Suprised’, which had been commissioned, is very long and tumultuous ; it is interesting to retrace its coming about. »

The initial theme of the work was ’Moïse saved from the water’, the nymph being the pharaon’s daughter, seen from the side, curled up, at the right side of the panel which was horizontal. For the first exposure of ’The Surprised Nymph’ in Saint Petersburg, in 1861, Manet hastily adds in the back of the nude the vague face of a satyre hidden behind the tree. With this last-minute addition, a convenient observer appears in the upper right corner. This add-on does not resist very long to interpretations and as such, according to the imagination, will take the trait of Pan, Acteon, David or any other timely observer spying on a bathing nymph.

Even though his style was characterized by loose brush strokes, simplification of details and the suppression of transitional tones, unlike the ’Pompier’ painters of the period, the male figure together with the title of the work show us that whatever their aesthetical quest, mythology persisted with the painters of the XIXth century.




The Surprised Nymphe, 1861. Manet

The painting was said to be very high-priced, this may be the reason why Manet tried to make it more ’agreeable’ for the conservative and retrograde public, that wouldn’t hesitate to lacerate indecent canvasses. The observer’s presence in the setting induces a retreat of the viewer and contributes in diminishing the inconvenience of the impropriety of the painting as it seems to be the return of a mythological tale. The viewer can look on without feeling guilty, as he is not the sole observer. Does Manet rub up the spectator the right way ? Like Rubens, he is aware of his subversiveness and erotism, the two fundamental components of his oeuvre. He is also conscious of the power his images have on a prudish commissioner. Adding the satyre becomes some kind of concession to stringency, not a huge thing, to be allowed in the museum institutions, while inserting pictorial daring. A blessing in disguise.

« In 1550, the naked woman in painting is commonplace. This is why the ’Church’ starts to worry about it... It is the prudish and bourgeois XIXth century that is shocked. »*10

The body of Manet’s nymph is venetian, rubenian even, with her generous and tender flesh, swaying and rippling. The posture is prude like a Venus Pudica : slightly curled up, hiding herself in a movement of withdrawal, the crossed tighs, arms firmly held against her breast. Surprised, she closes the access to her body, like Suzanne, showing herself at this very moment as a forbidden object for the eyes.


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