Looking past the rags
Have you ever seen somebody who looks like this man? Many cities today have people who are poor and without homes. One night when I was driving through the downtown area of a big city I saw one of these poor people wobbling on the edge of the curb while all the cars hurried by. As we passed him I could see what he was doing and why, and it changed my whole way of thinking about him. He had collected a shopping cart full of empty aluminum cans, which he would later sell. By putting a few in the street at a time, the passing cars crushed them for him. In his own dangerous, ill-advised way he was being resourceful and independent. That experience helped me see him less as a crazy old man and more as a fellow human being.
This painting by Manet does the same thing. It's called ``The Ragpicker.'' Manet lived in France in the 1800s. At that time ragpickers went around collecting old rags and junk to resell for a few coins. Do you think this was a funny subject for a painting? The people in Manet's time did.
They were used to paintings of more ``important'' people. There is something else about this painting that must have made the ragpicker seem even stranger to those 19th-century viewers. The great Spanish painter Vel'azquez, who lived before Manet in the 17th century, had painted a famous series of paintings called ``The Philosophers.''
These philosophers were men from way back in history who were famous for their thinking and ideas. Vel'azquez used poor people from his own time as models for the famous men. They were even dressed like men from the streets of Spain instead of ancient Greece.
Many of those who saw ``The Ragpicker'' when it was first painted saw the similarity and were upset by it. Manet didn't even pretend that he was painting someone famous.
What do you think he was trying to tell us about the ragpicker? As he stands there with his sack and his staff, the tools of his trade, he too is an independent human being. His head is lowered and he does not meet our eyes. Maybe he does not like the way some people look at him. Do you suppose someone else looked at him as if he were just some poor old man?
Did Manet intend us to pity the ragpicker? Look at the way he is painted. What things are included and what are not? His clothes are old and there are some holes, one in his pants and one in the smocklike shirt he is wearing. They are not in tatters. They do not have ragged edges. There are no really noticeable stains on them. We can see a hint at the collar line that he is wearing layers of something underneath, but he is not bundled up in any old thing he could find.
Manet has not put in lots of little details that would distract us from looking at the man that is the ragpicker. Dressing him in rags or emphasizing his filth might disgust some viewers. They would then be more concerned with that reaction and distracted from looking at the man himself. Manet has given us just enough to know that the man is poor, but not so much that we think only of his poverty.
There is another story about this painting. At the ragpicker's feet, in the littered still life is a crushed spear of asparagus. During Manet's lifetime many people criticized his painting, and sometimes he was very discouraged by this. One day when he was feeling sad, a man bought one of Manet's paintings - a still life of a bundle of asparagus. Manet was so cheered up by this that he painted the man a little thank you picture, a single spear of asparagus.