Rag pickers are to be seen every morning on the streets of cities in developing countries, but they’re generally young and vulnerable. This sombre artwork reminds many of Van Gogh's Potato Eaters.
This person is elderly, seemingly fit and strong, even if carrying a walking stick. He’s possibly prematurely aged.
The detail which distinguishes him in his particular occupation is the sack draped over his right shoulder.
Another detail is the clutter of litter at his feet. Rag pickers generally have particular specialities. Some collect only paper. Others collect polythene, probably not so plentiful in Manet’s time. Others collect tin.
The picture is predominantly grey in colour. The rag picker seems to appear out of shadows. No doubt he was working at night or in the early hours of the morning, lighted only by gas streetlights.
Rag pickers find it easier to work when the streets are less crowded, giving more scope for the bounty to be obtained. Also, it’s a rather shameful occupation.
Who wants to be seen performing this lowly task? Many of the poor send their children to participate in work like this, but this old man is clearly alone in the world and is forced to do the work himself.
He’ll get a few pennies for each kilogram of the target substance he brings back to his so-called employers, the suppliers of the grey sack he bears.
Although surrounded by greyness, the subject stands out. The clothes he’s wearing are tough clothes, the apparel of a working man.
Is that a pair of denim trousers he wears? If denims were around in 19th century France, then maybe it is. Elderly and afflicted by a stoop, the man nevertheless carries himself with some pride and self-respect. Miserable is his condition, but something about his appearance causes one to inwardly bow one’s head.
He has seen life, this man, probably in all its grandeur as well as its misery. Whatever has brought him down has not conquered him. He goes out there and does whatever work he can to earn his bread. Is he really all alone? One finds oneself wondering. Or is there a sick relative for whom money has to be earned? He intrigues me as I observe him.
Edouard Manet was a French painter who lived in the 19th Century. His style definition falls within the area between realism and impressionism. The original of this work is an oil painting on canvas.