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  • An Actor Beckons
  • Laura R. Bass and Elizabeth R. Wright*

When Édouard Manet viewed Diego de Velázquez’s portrait, Pablo de Valladolid (circa 1635, Museo del Prado, Madrid; cover illustration and fig. 1), he experienced an artistic epiphany. In a letter to Henri Fantin Latour, Manet judged the painting the most astonishing work ever rendered on canvas (“le plus étonnant morceau de peinture que l’on ait jamais fait est le tableau”). Following a catalogue of the Prado published by André-Absinthe Lavice in 1864 (186), he believed the figure represented a famous actor (“un acteur célèbre au temps de Philippe IV”) and described him beckoning out of thin air, his black costume adding lifelike force to the declamatory gesture (“le fond disparaît, c’est de l’air qui entoure ce bonhomme tout habillé de noir et vivant ... ” (Manet 44). Though Manet’s sojourn in Spain lasted just ten days in late summer of 1865, this inspiration endured.

Within months, Manet emulated the Velazquezian composition and color palette for The Tragic Actor (1866, National Gallery of Art, Washington; see fig. 2). His subject was the painter-turned-actor Philibert Rouvière, who had gained acclaim on the French stage playing Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Manet evoked Pablo de Valladolid’s pose and gesture in three additional paintings: The Fifer (1866, Musée d’Orsay, Paris), the Portrait of Faure as Hamlet (1877, Folkwang Museum, Essen), and a Self-Portrait (1878, Bridgestone Museum, Tokyo).1 Art historian Stella Adler argues convincingly that the lessons Manet learned from the “counsel of Velázquez” stemmed from what he construed as the Spaniard’s modernité. Specifically, Velázquez demonstrated how a figure displayed in isolation could yield dramatic characterization, drawing the spectator into a triangular conversation with both artist and subject (Adler 92–94). Manet’s grasp of this manifestation of Spanish modernity contrasts with the many writers and travelers of his day who traveled to Spain seeking characters and settings that conjured premodern simplicity or an exoticism associated with southern Europe. This was, after all, an era marked by the abiding success of Prosper Mérimée’s Carmen (1845).

Does it matter that the actor whose portrait so enchanted Manet was not, in point of fact, a professional of the theater? We know now that Pablo de Valladolid served the Habsburgs in the capacity of court jester (bufón or truhán). The scarce documents related to his life suggest that poverty may have brought him to court in childhood. For almost four decades, that combination of precarity and privilege peculiar to ancien-regime courts kept [End Page 5] him there.2 Velázquez painted Pablo de Valladolid along with five other men from the ranks of gente de placer to adorn a stairway leading to the queen’s quarter of the Buen Retiro palace (Marías 147). Together, the portraits formed a column of mock sentries to guard and entertain the Habsburg women.

Pablo de Valladolid may have played the court jester, but he was no fool. In other documents, we catch glimpses of him as a rational economic agent. Not long after Velázquez painted him, Valladolid and his wife, Beatriz de Villagrá, dictated a will noting that “cuando nos casamos, que habrá ocho años, no se hizo carta de dote porque no tuvimos bienes ningunos de que hacerle” (qtd. in Bouza 103). This sworn statement records such far-from-foolish pursuits as financial stability, family formation, and estate planning. After his death, a son Pablo and daughter Isabel were entitled to collect his raciones for palace service (Moreno Villa 146). These glimpses of a life beyond the confines of court protocols and servitude remind us that those labelled today as gentes de placer or bufones were not truncated individuals but men and women who used all the means available to negotiate a place in an intensely stratified society. Moreover, as theater scholars, we can appreciate how these lives ostensibly lived at the margins shaped the seemingly exalted men and women they served (Bass 103–07).

It is also revealing to contrast Lavice’s and Manet’s descriptions of Pablo de Valladolid as an actor with...


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