Manet's Masked Ball at the Opera
On April 12, 1874, the Salon jury rejected Manet Masked Ball at the Opera[I]. It is not difficult to see why. Even today, this painting attracts and disturbs almost equally. More disconcertingly, what attracts us in the Ball is exactly what disturbs us about it: its mixture of brutality and sensuality; the way it manages to suggest coarseness with infinite refinement; the way the nostalgic frivolity of the Rococo masked ball is recast in the up-to-date, down-to-earth language of the bourse, the boulevardier, and the cocotte. Only one year earlier, Manet had used a similar compositional structure--a back-view figure with raised arms confronting a random group facing out of the picture space--in his lithograph The Barricade, a pictorial record of the execution of a Communard. Although the Salon jury probably only sensed this coincidence, there is a confrontational energy to the painting that at this particular moment in history could easily have been interpreted as a subliminal threat.
Ball at the Opera refused--and still refuses--to comply with the conventional view of its subject, with notions like "merrymaking," "gay abandon," or "lighthearted revelry." Such notions account for only part of its impact. The avidity of its gestures, the close-up concentration of its format, the all-embracing darkness of its color scheme--all this seems to point to a more complex range of experience and sensibility. One contemporary chronicler wrote of the moist lips and sensual eyes of the men, "alight with truffles and Corton"--men who, in the words of the same