T. S. Eliot's little-known sonnet "On a Portrait" (1909) describes a painting by Edouard Manet from 1866, Woman with a Parrot. The significance of this connection has not been examined, nor has the further association of Manet's painting with Eliot's "Portrait of a Lady," another portrait of a woman with a parrot. These poems examine the peculiar inscrutability that observers of Manet's portrait have long remarked. Eliot's poems consider two possible meanings for the blank look on her face: either she is concealing her thoughts from us, or she is mentally absent. While "On a Portrait" considers both possibilities, "Portrait of a Lady" pursues the implications of the second interpretation, suggesting that selfhood or subjectivity is not predicated on a private interiority but on "parroting" the formulae of social interaction. Following Manet, Eliot links flatness--painterly and psychological--with meaningless imitation. All three "portraits" entertain a conception of subjectivity based on reflection and imitation rather than inwardness and originality.
Although Eliot's connection with Manet has been neglected, (1) recent criticism in general has emphasized the nineteenth-century figures that influenced Eliot early in his career rather than the more historically remote ones (such as Donne and Dante) that he publicly avowed. In a recent article Ronald Bush identifies Eliot's ties to decadence as one of the primary areas of interest in Eliot studies, particularly with respect to the poet's sexuality (Ann Ardis, Colleen Lamos, Cassandra Laity). This renewal of attention to Eliot's nineteenth-century context owes much to Carol Christ's work on his use of Victorian genres; of special relevance to this essay, she has linked Eliot's representation of women to the nineteenth-century poetic mode of female portraiture as practiced by Tennyson, Browning, Rossetti, and Swinburne. ("Gender" 23). Swinburne is the primary presence in Eliot's Advocate poems from 1908 to January 1909, and this is especially true of "On a Portrait," one of the last poems Eliot wrote before his momentous encounter with Laforgue, which began when he received a copy of Arthur Symons's The Symbolist Movement in Poetry for Christmas in 1908. Eliot's imitation of Swinburne and Tennyson is a stylistic feature of this poem and also very likely the source of some of its thematic anxiety about parrots.
Eliot's primary inspiration for his sonnet, however, was Edouard Manet's Woman with a Parrot rather than a work of literature. According to a letter from Eliot's college friend William Tinckom-Fernandez to Harford Powel Jr. (Powel Sr., presumably his father, had been on the Advocate editorial board at the same time as Eliot), he wrote the poem after seeing a reproduction of Manet's painting in a book on French impressionism (Powel 90). (2) It is not at all surprising that Eliot would have been struck by Manet's work, in view of the apprenticeship to Laforgue, and then to Laforgue's master Baudelaire, that he took up almost immediately after he composed this poem. Baudelaire was also Manet's master, in the sense that the poet's treatment of modern urban life gave the painter much of his subject matter (Reff, Manet and Modern Paris 13)--as also happened with Eliot. What is surprising is that Eliot's appreciation of Manet predated the influence of the French poets on his sensibility. In fact, it may have prepared the way for it.
Many critics now credit Manet as the first modernist painter, although he composed his major canvases in the 1860s and 70s and did not even regard himself as a member of the impressionists; they called him rather their "father." Clement Greenberg influentially claimed that Manet's modernism lay in his rejection of the illusion of depth:
Manet's paintings became the first Modernist ones by virtue of the
frankness with which they declared the surfaces on which they were
painted.... Flatness, two-dimensionality, was the only condition
painting shared with no other art, and so Modernist painting
oriented itself to flatness as it did to nothing else. …