The New Edinburgh Edition of the Collected Works of Robert Louis Stevenson

Manet, Stevenson and ‘Facture’

with 11 comments

The following (incorporating some corrections and additional information supplied by Roger Swearingen since first posting) collects some ideas stimulated by a recent debate of our essays discussion group concerning a key term in Stevenson’s essay ‘A Note on Realism’ (1883).

Manet, Woman with a Parrot (or: Young Woman in 1866)

Manet“Again as I said by mere vivacity and variety of facture, the public may be cheated into admiration; Manet’s cock and lady that I wanted to buy, is the game; or etching as a parallel for the best sort. That is the true way central to literature; and I believe it must be the true way in painting.” (L4: 180-82, 9 October 1883; to Bob Stevenson).

When did RLS want to buy Manet’s painting?

According to the Metropolitan Museum of New York online catalogue, the painting was in the artist’s studio 1866-72; then at the dealer’s Durand-Ruel, 1872–77; then owned by Ernest Hoschedé (department store magnate) 1877–78; then by artist Henri Hecht, Paris 1878-81.  In 1881 the painting was sold to J. Alden Weir for Erwin Davis, New York, the owner 1881-1889.

After its exhibition at the Paris Salon in 1868, it was included in a London exhibition “Fifth Exhibition of the Society of French Artists”, Winter 1872.

We do not know if RLS saw the painting in 1872: there is no evidence of his being in London during the ‘winter season’, and anyway he would not have been tempted to buy it as before his his twenty-third birthday in November 1873 he only had an allowance of £12 a year (Balfour I, 83). It is more probable that he saw the painting in Paris some time before 1881 (when the painting went to New York): possibly when RLS was with Bob, and when he could think of paying around 2000 Fr (the 1877 sale price; maybe £2000 at the time, if this information is reliable).

The The period can be narrowed down to the period after July 1875 when, after being called to the Scottish bar, he received £1000 of his inheritance. As this windfall did not last long, a ‘good fit’ for the occasion when RLS saw and wanted to buy the painting would be at the dealer’s, 1875-77, accompanied by Bob, during one of his various visits to Paris. This painting inspired by Velazquez, would have appealed to Bob, pupil of an admirer of Velazquez, Carolus-Durand, and himself an admirer and future author of a study of the painter, in which he several times links the names of Manet, Carolus-Durand and Velazquez. (If fellow atelier student Singer Sargent was with them, the group would have included another Velazquez admirer.)

Other mentions of Manet by RLS

Manet is also mentioned in The Hair Trunk (1877): the room of one of the bohemian students is full of jumbled works of art, good and bad, one of them is ‘an original Manet in the last stage of impressionalism’ (quote kindly supplied by Roger Swearingen); it is listed between an example of bad art and one of good: the latter, etchings by some good modern artists. (‘Last’ must mean ‘latest’, ‘most recent’; RLS had used ‘impressional’ of landscape that looked like a painting in ‘An Autumn Effect’, written December 1874-January 1875, a few months after the first of use ‘impressionniste’ in French in a review of the 1874 Salon; the first use of ‘Impressionist’ in English is recorded by the OED as by Henry James in 1876.)

The American painter John Le Farge later reports a conversation with Stevenson in Samoa, when he said that he’d been among the first to recognise ‘the value of Manet, the so-called impressionist, upon his first sight of a painting by him’. (La Farge, John. 1894. Stevenson’s Life at Samoa. New York Times (30 December 1894): 4).

What does ‘the game’ mean?

This isn’t well covered by the OED, but with the help of a Google N-grams search, I propose the following definitions:

1. ‘the way to succeed’, ‘what you must aim for’, ‘the right way to do things’ (‘Simplicity is the game of the young, and the more experienced should play down to the capacity of their partners’ (Westminster Papers: A Monthly Journal of Chess, Whist…,  Vol. 11 (1879), p. 66). 2. ‘the best game’, ‘the thing for me’ (‘War is the game, sir—life, honour, glory, are a grand stake’, Noctes Ambrosianae 58 (Blackwood’s Einburgh Magazine 30, 1831, p. ‘The Game of War’).

The first part of the sentence ‘cheated into admiration’ is followed by an ambiguous semicolon; what follows this can be an addition that follows in some way, even by being opposed (‘I go; you stay’). In this case, and bearing in mind the loose structure of a letter, I would see the semicolon as followed by an implied ‘but’ — everything after this is what RLS approves of, in his search for a good example to explain his idea about the true method in art.

An alternative reading is that Manet’s painting is a parallel for the worst sort of ‘facture’, etching of best. This would imply a reversal of his feelings towards the Manet painting between c. 1875 and 1883—possible, but since he is writing to an admirer of Manet, would he not have had to add a few words of explanation?

A third interpetation is that RLS admired the way Manet’s technical skill won over the public: the facture seduced the public out of its prejudices, wooed it out of its reserve (i.e.. ‘cheated’ is not being used with negative connotations). Against this, we might say that the painting was not received well by the public (at least by newspaper reviewers: it was mentioned in only 28 (of 134) reviews of the salon, mostly unfavorably – Arden Reed, Manet, Flaubert, and the Emergence of Modernism, 2003), so there is no question here of ‘people’ and ‘the public’ being wooed/cheated by brilliant technique. In the letter to Bob ‘as I said’ clearly refers back to Gautier. The semicolon that follows ‘Again as I said by mere vivacity and variety of facture, the public may be cheated into admiration;’ can legitimately be taken to be followed by an elided ‘but’–this helps us distinguish the condemned Gautier (see below ‘What does “facture” mean?’), who cheated the public into admiration, and the following comments about a painting that he had been completely bowled over by to the point of thinking of using all the money he had in order to buy it.)

Why did RLS want to buy Manet’s painting?

One attraction must have been its interesting debt to Japanese art, which RLS was fascinated by — the monochrome background and the few clear details (the small bunch of violets, the parrot, the peeled lemon and the long peignoir of a single colour) — so that the overall composition is simple and clear; the flat background reflecting wittily, as in Japanese prints, on the flat painted surface. In a similar way, the thick opaque colour (‘impasto’) tends towards the abstract and draws attention to the material quality of the paint: indeed, the brushstrokes are visible in the dress and parrot. These factors must have appealed to S’s interest in revealing the hand of the artist and emphasizing pattern in his own art. Both Manet and Stevenson were focussed on radically rethinking their art and its techniques and this is clear in the works they produced.

Secondly, the portrait is enigmatic, full of possibly symbolic (and conventional) still-life elements (the violets etc.) and it is placed in an undefined space (like the subjects of many Japanese prints) yet is clearly the portrait of a real woman. Manet here, as elsewhere, blurs the boundaries between portrait and genre scenes (as in ‘The Railway’, 1873) and combines simplicity and immediacy with a fascinating suggested but elusive meaning (as in ‘Déjeuner sur l’herbe’, 1863). The uncertain balance of the real and ideal is also a feature of Stevenson’s own art, if we remember Marcel Schwob’s praise of his ‘réalisme […] parfaitement irréel’ (Spicilège, 1896), and his defence of the expressive force of conventional elements in his essay ‘A Note on Realism’ (1883). His own works often are of uncertain genre have an uncertain and enigmatic meaning: we need only think of The New Arabian Nights with its modern city setting and contemporary characters but completely elusive moral meaning, its almost surrreal atmosphere.

I think what attracted RLS to the painting was its clear exploration of technique, its enigmatic interaction with the viewer, and its combination of ‘significance and charm’ (key terms in ‘A Note on Realism’ and in another theory-of-art letter to Bob of just over a week before the one discussed here, L4: 168-71; ? 30 September 1883), i.e. its combination of the representational and abstraction, the symbolic and the aesthetically pleasing, the realistic and the ideal, that he also found in Japanese prints and that we can find in analogous forms in his own writings.

What is the parallel between etching and literature?

EtchingThe unexplained parallel between etching and literature in Stevenson’s letter to Bob recalls his 1880 draft ‘On the Art of Literature’ (JSS 7, p. 142): here, to a list of chapter titles has been added, inserted at an angle,  an idea for a new chapter or section: ‘style and etching’. Clearly S had ideas on the subject. What could they be?

Well, first of all, the etcher, drawing with his stylus, and the resultant black lines on paper have affinities with writing, but RLS is probably  thinking more of the meticulous attention and the working and reworking required: the way the criss-cross hatchings (meaningless in themselves, with no equivalent in the real world) build up a pictures by working and shaping (by ‘facture’). As in Stevenson’s writing with its foregrounded stylistic effects, both the overall representation (like the story) can be observed and appreciated as well as skill at manipulating the individual marks (like word-choices and orderings). There is also perhaps an appreciation of complexity, as in his idea of the ‘knot’ in his 1885 essay on style.

What does ‘facture’ mean?

RLS uses the word to mean the process by which a work of art is produced (i.e. technique). This is clear from the first paragraph of ‘A Note on Realism’:

What to put in and what to leave out; whether some particular fact be organically necessary or purely ornamental; whether, if it be purely ornamental, it may not weaken or obscure the general design; and finally, whether, if we decide to use it, we should do so grossly and notably, or in some conventional disguise: are questions of plastic style continually rearising.

Instead of ‘plastic style’, S had put ‘facture’.  Henley questioned the word in  proofs and in his reply Stevenson suggested an alternative: ‘To substitute for facture = handling = plastic style; I can think of no others’ (L4: 153). The previous sentence gives us another list of processes involved: ‘the proportion of one part to another and to the whole, the elision of the useless, the accentuation of the important, and the preservation of a uniform character from end to end’. In paragraph 5 he associates with this stage all the decisions concerning ‘the scale, the style, the spirit, and the particularity of execution’.

In other words, for S, ‘facture’ is not the creation of a merely attractive finish, but all the manipulative (plastic) working necessary to realize the work of art, involving many vital decisions (i.e. execution is not merely carrying out of an idea). (Incidentally, this is similar to the practice that Bob describes—in his Introduction to Walter Armstrong’s Raeburn, 1901—for admired painters like Manet, Raeburn, Velzquez and Carolus-Durand: their method ‘passed through one stage, gradually approaching completion by a moulding, a refining, a correcting of the first lay in’). (For further thoughts on ‘facture’, see the comments to this posting.)

When exhibited at the Salon, Manet’s painting was mentioned by few reviewers, mostly unfavourable, but it found a staunch defendant in Emile Zola who proclaimed it, even before the Salon, as ‘a new way of painting’ (”Une nouvelle manière en peinture: Edouard Manet’, 1867), for its multiple ambivalences of reality and representation, its overt paintedness, and because of the way it is ‘vividly coloured and factured’.

In the letter to Bob, however, RLS refers to ‘mere facture’, by which he means the execution of a work of art to display ability of execution, guided by mere considerations of style, in order to obtain cheap admiration. The example of ‘mere facture’ he means is indicated by the opening phrase ‘Again as I said’, which points to the first sentence of the letter, which opens brusquely, carrying on a debate between the two cousins:

In my art, studies can be made to go down by one quality, facture: a person like Gautier — dam bad art — factures to such a point that people take simple unadulterated strings of facts from him.

So ‘As I said’ certainly refers to Gautier, who S never fails to denigrate (in ‘On the Art of Literature’, for example: ‘verbal description of scenery for its own sake (Gautier)’; ‘the defect of this deep human current […] leaves […] all of Gautier, low, cheap, and perishable’).

Stevenson and painting

All this would be an interesting part of a study on ‘Stevenson and painting’—but someone else will have to do that. Now, back to the essays.


Written by rdury

19/12/2012 at 3:12 pm

11 Responses

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  1. Refusal of Manet’s ‘The Fifer’ at the Salon of 1866 caused Zola to write in “L’Evenement” that he was ‘so convinced that M. Manet would be one of the great masters of tomorrow that he would think it a good stroke of business, if he had money enough, to buy all his canvases now’; this both enraged the readers and caused the editor to dispense with Zola as critic. (from William Gaunt, “The Impressionists”, repr.1988)

    Neil Brown

    19/12/2012 at 5:49 pm

  2. Additional definitions of ‘facture’:

    1. “1 Didact. Manière dont est faite (une œuvre d’art), dont est réalisée la mise en œuvre des moyens matériels et techniques. La facture d’une sonate. Absolt. Morceau de facture, qui offre des difficultés d’exécution. — La facture d’un sonnet, d’une strophe. ➙ Manière, 1. style, technique. Des vers d’une bonne facture. — Couplet de facture, où l’auteur a utilisé des rimes rares, redoublées, etc. ”
    (Trésor de la Langue Française).

    2. “We are so accustomed to seeing reproductions of art, reduced in size and reproduced by mechanical means, that we often miss the handmade quality so valued in one-of-a-kind drawings. This handmade quality is called facture, a term that refers to the process or manner of making something […] You will learn to build a descriptive vocabulary to discuss the quaity and purpose of the marks, becoming aware of the speed or slowness with which they were made, registering their physical characteristics, and tracing the signs of facture in the drawing.”
    (Teel Sale and Claudia Betti, Drawing: A Contemporary Approach (2007), 24.)

    3. “Facture is the term used by art historians to describe the manner in which a painting has been executed, especially as it testifies to the work of human hands. In some cases the manner of workmanship may not be immediately evident, but in other cases we may be aware of the physical reality of the picture because of this element of facture”
    (John Willats, Art and Representation: New Principles in the Analysis of Picture (1997), 223.)
    (Definitions 2 and 3 were kindly supplied by Roger Swearingen.)

    4. ‘visible traces of the artist’s creative gestures, such as vigorous modelling in clay or paint, fast brushwork and signs of the movement of the hand more generally’ (Freedberg and Gallese 2007: 119)

    These definitions confirm that ‘facture’ means the manner of creating the work of art that remains visible in the finished work and reminds one of the hand of the artist. Stevenson describes the forest landscape (in ‘Forest Notes’) as if it were a painting (presenting our perception of painting and reality as similar) in terms of such ‘facture: ‘The junipers […] are daubed in forcibly against the glowing ferns and heather’.

    Now we can see how etching fits in, because the manner of creating the forms remains visible (the lines of hatching). In fact, the Trésor continues with more examples, including “une petite eau-forte (de Rembrandt), de facture hachée, impétueuse”.

    Facture is important to RLS because he wants the reader to be aware of the work of the writer and not (e.g. in a narrative) simply get lost in a story; ‘mere facture’ is where the writer is just displaying his stylistic ability.


    21/12/2012 at 4:05 pm

    • For an etching and like works of art to be considered ‘genuine’, the act of creation, that is not only the drawing but the actual printing, of the piece should be accomplished by the hands of artist him/herself, and also accordingly signed off (and often numbered in person below the plate.

      Neil Brown

      22/12/2012 at 12:25 pm

    • Of course he [Bob] is yet awkward at the trade [writing]; he has no facture, is bitter conscious of it; hates the slavery of writing
      (L5, 88; Mar 1885,to Will Low)

      —here ‘facture’ seems refer to the ‘working’ of the text, the intense work (‘slavery’) of re-ordering, adjusting, etc. to make a text that is not ‘awkward’.


      02/08/2013 at 12:52 pm

      • Indeed, a good translation of ‘facture’ would be ‘working’: I saw an interview recently with Francis Bacon in which he says he paints directly on the canvas (like Carolus Duran and the Impressionists) and the painting evolves in ‘the working’. When anyone praises ‘facture’ in a work of visual art it is clearly for the traces of brushwork and working that are left and are visible. For literature, it must be the clear work that has been involved in balancing, contrasting, echoing, parallelisms, fine distinctions etc. that can only be achieved by testing, editing, re-ordering, reformulating—’working’ the text.


        22/09/2014 at 9:40 am

  3. As a contribution towards RLS’s interest in painting and etching, here is an etching of Millet’s “Homme à la houe”, which RLS saw in Marseille in 1883 and was apparently bowled over by:

    I went along a street here, and suddenly beheld an etching of ‘Labor’, and fell off my horse and am being treated for scales. It was a thunderbolt. Yes, sir, that is Art. […] It (Labor) is as great as a mountain and as noble as Paradise Lost, and really moving, really, I do admit, moving. But it is grisly (L4: 62)

    and later,

    The ‘Labor’ is Waltner’s etching, and strikes me as good. Homme à la What! do you call it? (L4: 72)

    Mehew identifies the engraver Charles-Albert Waltner; the link above is to the work of a different engraver.


    23/12/2012 at 4:09 pm

    • RLS returns to praise Millet’s ‘Labour’ (L4, 68; 2 Feb 1883, to Henley): it worked a ‘conversion’ on him,

      Est-il assez anarchiste, ce tableau? C’est à dégouter tout le monde de la société. It made me turn my back to that old religious world, which was no fun for the _viveur_ or the artist or the radical politician, and where I should have been hanged long ago, but where the peasant was a priest and celebrated holy festivals at every act of husbandry. Quantum mutatus! Now there is Bob and I and Henri Rochefort, and that heredetary idiot, the blood dried out of his brain by centuries of overwork, standing, aching, in the hag [Scots and N. dial. ‘piece of soft bog’ or ‘a spot of firmer ground in a peatbog’]’ (L4, 68; 2 Feb 1883, to WEH).

      This tells us that in this case, it is the subject or meaning of the painting that interests him, so it rather takes us away from our discussion of artistic ‘forming’ and the traces it leaves on the work of art.

      (Here he seems to be still opposes himself to ‘le monde de la société’ and alligns himself with Bob, the French radical Henri Rochefort and Millet’s oppressed peasant . This seems a definite change from his idealization of the peasant in the first para of ‘Forest Notes’ (1876), to which he now turns his back, and a clear indication that in early 1883 he still saw himself as a radical.)


      21/07/2013 at 9:23 am

  4. 2000 Fr = £2000: this seems correct. A contemporary treatise on etching says (p. 69) $1 = 5 Fr and Carus-Wilson, Essays in Economic History, 1966, says until WW1, $5 = £1,


    23/01/2013 at 6:34 am

  5. On RLS and etching, Neil Macara Brown sent me the following comment and link:

    In a letter to his mother of Feb 1878, RLS mentions the Paris art dealer, Alfred Cadart. The reference, Mehew suggests is to do with his possible purchase of that year’s etching portfolio of Cadart’s – ‘sells them a little cheaper to me, and this year’s album contains some beauties’ – as a wedding present for Henley.

    And here is a Bastien-Lepage etching from that portfolio.


    23/01/2013 at 6:56 am

  6. […] saw in an earlier post that RLS was so struck by a painting by Manet that he probably contemplated spending all the money he had in order to buy it. Other works of […]

  7. FACTURE. Bob refers to this several times in his letters:

    1. 24 Dec 1878 (to Henley, B 5666): I wish my feeble art were really swell. I have no “facture”. “facture” is what is the matter with me all round”.
    [so facture is associate with strength and is something Bob aspires to attain]

    2. 1878-79(?) (B 57034): [first part of letter missing] He said “facture would come in time. I hope so. “Il se fait attendre assez longtemps” many have struck on the shoal of “facture” being swallowed in the infinite business of imitating Pelouse [Léon Germain Pelouse] […] he is most gorgeous in “facture” […] A very high standard of “facture” is equired now & easily, too easily got at least in France. So one is likely to make a bad fight of it in the market whatever one’s goods are if they have not cleverness of “facture”. All I know is I shan’t imitate Pelouse in that. Dameron [Emile Charles Dameron] a great swell [… words obliterated by liquid] It is in “facture he sees his idea. His big canvasses really strike awe. But after a time when one has seen numbers and understood all there is, one feels about it like one does about real poetry (not stuff by colossal people like Shakespeare, W. Whitman the Bible). One feels is that all [?] […] With us [us painters in Barbizon? with you and me?] a poet is not the highest form of artist (tho’ he may be also that), if he is he will be horribly torn to pieces) but a thinker and excited person who catches flame in all directions not very delicately always and overrides what is called beauty of execution [N.B. he does not say “facture”] forcedly often for he must express what is to be expressed demands newness “naivetè” in fact ugliness…”
    [facture is a quality of value that only comes in time and which Bob hopes to acquire; however, concentrating on that alone does not create a great painting]

    Note on Pelouse: “La facture de l’oeuvre est caractéristique de l’art de Pelouse qui aime peindre, dans des tonalités de vert et de brun, des paysages où la nature enchevêtrée se reflète dans une eau tranquille baignée de l’éclat du ciel”; also “Léon-Germain Pelouse (1838-1891), paysagiste à la facture très minutieuse et réaliste”, Journal of Canadian Art History.


    10/11/2013 at 1:35 pm

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