This painting, found in Manet’s studio after his death, was never exhibited, and no indication of its original title has been discovered. Purchased by Edgar Degas, it was listed in early sales as Indian Woman or Mexican Woman. The gypsy designation appeared relatively late but has been accepted. Though a date in the 1860s is traditional — based on comparisons with Spanish dancers whom Manet saw perform at the Paris Hippodrome in 1862 — Juliet Wilson-Bareau recently suggested that the composition is closer to works from the 1870s.
Spanish culture and painting fascinated Manet, and the loose, expressive brushwork of Velázquez and Goya heavily influenced him. The subject and identity of the model are perhaps less critical for the interpretation than the way in which the artist presents this exotic "other," who transgresses the norms associated with respectable French women of the era. Dark skin and tousled black hair mark her as an outsider, as does the bold, frontal pose. With one hand on her hip and a cigarette dangling from her lips, she exudes audacious self-confidence. Her gaze into the distance lends a thoughtful, even contemplative air. Manet’s composition is equally daring. It includes passages that are difficult to read and optical inconsistencies, like the form on which the woman leans. Objects are cropped at unusual places — the horse’s head is cut off behind the ear. Manet seems to have considered the canvas unfinished, and it is difficult to know how he would have completed it. Gypsy with a Cigarette thus remains a tantalizing work, one of Manet’s most enigmatic images of a daydreaming woman.
Manet first became interested in gypsies in the early 1860s. Here, he presents his anonymous sitter as an exotic "other" who transgresses the norms associated with respectable French women—and polite society in general—of his time. The woman’s dark skin and tousled black hair mark her as an outsider, as does her bold frontal pose. With her left hand on her hip, her head leaning casually against her right hand, and a cigarette dangling from her lips, she exudes audacious self-confidence, while her gaze into the distance lends the work a thoughtful, even contemplative, air. Subjects such as this gave Manet a freedom denied to artists who relied on commissions.
The splendor of her clothes, the blue, open sky, her cigarette, the horses around her—will she choose to roam again?—all speak of freedom. She is said to be a Gypsy, but she could be from anywhere. Anywhere but here . . . Is it what she meant to the French, then? What would she mean now? Romani, Algerian, Syrian, Arab, Jew, refugee, migrant . . . We can keep naming, staring, she keeps escaping us. Her eyes don’t meet ours. They are set on a different horizon, with envy, or regret. Anywhere but here? She is welcome to stay.
André Benhaim, Associate Professor, French and Italian
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An Educated Eye: The Princeton University Art Museum Collection (Friday, February 22, 2008 - Sunday, June 15, 2008)
The Private Collection of Edgar Degas (September 22, 1977–January 11, 1998)
Manet 1832-1883 (Friday, April 22, 1983 - Sunday, November 27, 1983)