Painted the year Édouard Manet died, 1883, Head of Jean-Baptiste Faure was a preparatory study for a portrait that was never finished.
Édouard Manet had painted Jean-Baptiste Faure before this, in 1887. This earlier work depicts Faure, a composer and baritone opera star, as Hamlet. He is dressed in full costume, from black tights to feathered cap, and looks every bit the part, holding an unsheathed rapier sword at his side.
Jean-Baptiste Faure excelled not only on the stage, but also as an art collector. At the time of his death, he owned nearly seventy of paintings by Édouard Manet, and almost as many by Claude Monet, whom he had commissioned to paint landscapes of the chalk cliffs, which were located near Faure's villa. Faure loved the Impressionists, and purchased for his collection artwork from Edgar Degas and Camille Pissarro, among others.
A major influence of the Impressionist movement, Édouard Manet popularized new painting techniques, which were not taught or used by academic painters. One such technique was called alla prima, or wet-on-wet. Instead of glazing multiple layers of semi-transparent oil paint, waiting for each layer to dry before painting the next, he simply painted the colors as he saw them onto and beside paint that was still wet, sometimes even blending colors on the canvas.
This was a more immediate way of painting, and one well suited to the Impressionists, who liked to paint outdoors, or "en plein air." Manet used alla prima when painting the Head of Jean-Baptiste Faure.
In this portrait, we see another of Manet's approaches to working with paint, that of "flatness," an attribute that lends a graphic, abstract quality to a painting. Here, it is not pronounced, but we see it in the brush strokes that chose uniformity of color over form. Though not uncommon in modern art, Manet's work is thought by historians to be the first example of "flatness" in this period.
Even though this portrait of Faure is merely a study, it is a beautiful likeness, and the sketchy lines of the unfinished lower half provide a glimpse into a great artist's process, and hint at his mortality.