Chloë Ashby

Manet, Mandarins and Me


My husband doesn’t enjoy peeling oranges. He doesn’t like the little white webs of pith or the way the juice trickles between his fingers and soaks and stains the skin. He’s not a fan of pips. The citrus-sweet taste he could take or leave. If I had to choose between him and my favourite fruit, I like to think I’d stick with him.

When I think of oranges, I think of Christmas. A single clementine in the toe of a stocking. A smattering on the table, edible decorations, attached to stalks with waxy green leaves. 

I think of generic places in the sun – Spain, maybe, Portugal. 

I think freshly squeezed. And a little less fresh: Capri Sun and Sunny Delight. Sugar on milk teeth. 

I think of Wendy Cope’s The Orange: ‘At lunchtime I bought a huge orange / The size of it made us all laugh. / I peeled it and shared it with Robert and Dave— / They got quarters and I had a half.’

Most of all, I think of Édouard Manet. At least one man in my life appreciates a fine citrus fruit when he sees it.


It might be too much to say that the artist had a thing for oranges, but they were surely among his favourite fruit. Maybe not the first thing that springs to mind when you think of his art, because of course there’s bigger, louder stuff going on: urban life, gender relations and all the complexities and contradictions of modernity. In the 1860s he invented a new way of painting – and of seeing – that was unconventional and casually provocative, fresh (though not particularly juicy) and bluntly real. He was ambitious yet self-effacing, daring in both style and subject matter. His strokes were sketchy, the transitions between light and dark harsh; according to Mallarmé, he ‘flung himself at the canvas, pell-mell, as if he had never painted before’. He was chastised for the controversial pictures he painted for the Salon, the annual exhibition in Paris that made and ended careers. Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia, with their brusquely naked women, were both completed in 1863; the first was rejected and exhibited at the adjacent Salon des Refusés, the second accepted, mocked, and condemned as immoral.

So, why bother with oranges? Because, as Cope continues: ‘And that orange, it made me so happy, / As ordinary things often do.’

I like to think they made Manet happy, too.


I vividly remember the first time I saw the artist’s last major painting in the flesh. I was studying at the Courtauld Institute of Art and in need of a break. I passed through the first five rooms of the Courtauld Gallery without giving the drawings and paintings on the walls much thought, which was more a reflection of me and my state of mind than the quality of the art. In the sixth room, I halted in front of A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882), that popular painting of the glum-looking barmaid and, behind her, a vast gold-framed mirror reflecting a merry crowd in a bustling interior. The thing that got me was the model’s expression; she was Suzon, an employee at the Folies-Bergère, a café-concert. Standing before her, I tried to figure out if she was tired, sad, bored. 

After a while I let my gaze slip down her rosy cheek, up and over the lacy trim of her jacket, and down her left arm, until it bumped into a small congregation of clementines. There are at least half a dozen, heaped in a crystal bowl, not unlike eggs in a nest, each polished to a sheen, with a glossy outer skin. Flicks of white paint resemble highlights, bouncing off the café-concert’s powdery gas lights and more yellowy chandeliers. The oranges are the most vividly painted items on the canvas; unlike the sketchily rendered roses plonked in the half-filled glass of water, and the hazy bottles of champagne topped with gold foil, they’re bright and clearly defined. In a scene that’s slippery and fraught with uncertainty, they provide the viewer with a solid point of contact.


Manet took four of those oranges and made them the main event in one of the very many still lifes he painted during the same period. He’d produced a group of flower paintings in the mid-1960s, in and around his heroically scaled canvases, and in his later years he returned to this most traditional of genres. ‘Still life is the touchstone of the painter,’ said the artist. Another well-known quote: ‘A painter can say all he wants to say with fruit or flowers or even clouds.’ When he began working on A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, he set up a marble counter in his studio so that he could focus uninterruptedly on the lush still life on the bar, with that bottle of Campari at the left edge – he added his signature and the date to the label. Unlike the richly detailed arrangement of bottles, fruit and flowers, the free-standing still lifes he painted between 1880 and 1882 are simple. 

Four Mandarin Oranges is just that. Three pieces of fruit gently overlap, while the fourth has rolled slightly apart – like Baudelaire’s flâneur, another mainstay of 19th-century Paris, it’s a part of the crowd, and also separate from it. The rounded forms cast hazy shadows on the countertop, purplish brown on pearly grey. They’ve been hastily illustrated, with fizzy strokes in at least three shades, plus those paper-white flecks. Sharp daubs of brown possibly hint at future spoilage. 

It’s tempting to say that Manet’s mandarins hover between beauty and decay. The artist’s life was cut short in 1883 – he was fifty-one and had been suffering from tabes dorsalis, a degenerative disease associated with untreated syphilis – and in the years preceding his death he had trouble walking and was mostly confined to painting indoors. In the face of his physical decline, he embraced the natural world. Against the plain brown backdrop, dark and undefined, the oranges are glossy and vivid, pulsing, at least for now.

One of the earliest depictions of oranges in Western art history sets them against a dusky background, too. In the Arnolfini Portrait (1434) by the Dutch Old Master Jan van Eyck, three have been scattered on a wooden table, half-hidden by the merchant’s inky-black robes. Another rests on the windowsill, a carefully considered study in light and dark. At the time, oranges were expensive and hard to come by, and from the dimly lit reception room of this couple’s mansion they emerge jewel-like, a painterly allusion to the couple’s wealth. Fast-forward to the 21st century and in No. 11 (Untitled) (1957), Mark Rothko takes those oranges – at least in my mind – and squeezes them dry. Emerging from the rich orange background of the luminescent abstraction are two rectangular bands of yellow-orange sandwiching a thin wash of white that verges on transparent.

Oranges were common in Europe by the 1800s – and, if I’m honest, they weren’t the only fruit to turn Manet’s eye. Together with his contemporaries, Cézanne and Gauguin, the artist painted fruity still lifes in all their infinite, zesty variety. A heap of peaches, strawberries in a basket, apples, twice a melon, a pair of cherries, pears, a lone lemon. In his last decade he sent small pictures of fruit (and of flowers, too) to friends. Plums were a favourite, and feature regularly in the handwritten letters he wrote in the summer and autumn of 1880. My favourite of that kind isn’t a still life, or a letter, but Plum Brandy (c. 1877), which shows another young woman lost in thought – or maybe tipsy? Sitting in a café on a plush red banquette, with a cigarette in hand, she slumps over a small glass containing honey-coloured liquid and in it a single, floating plum.

Manet painted vegetables, too. Most famously, a bundle of white-and-lilac asparagus, which he sold to an admirer, the collector and art historian Charles Ephrussi, who met the artist in 1880, and who was so delighted with the work that he overpaid him by two-hundred francs. In thanks, Manet sent over a second, smaller canvas of a single stalk, hastily depicted, accompanied by a note that said, ‘There was one missing from your bunch.’


Back to the clementines in the crystal bowl atop the bar at the Folies-Bergère. Their perfectly rounded forms and high-key palette exhibit the kind of loving care and attention that the asparagus spears, pale and flaccid, are lacking. That day in the Courtauld Gallery, after staring long and hard at the barmaid’s face, then focusing instead on the bowl of fruit, I stepped back and took in the busy scene as a whole. 

That’s when I realised that, as well as a providing a point of contact, the clementines functioned as a second mirror of sorts. When I think of them now, I picture a mound of mini mirrored spheres – not unlike the kind that Yayoi Kusama invited the public to purchase for two dollars a pop at the Venice Biennale in 1966; the unofficial performance piece was called Narcissus Garden, and for the duration the Japanese artist stood beside a sign that read “Your Narcissism for Sale”. Like Suzon, the clementines have been primped and preened for admirers (some call them clients); they too are on display. It’s no coincidence that the shape of the crystal bowl echoes the barmaid’s hourglass figure, with a tightly bound corset accentuating her narrow waist. Beside the oranges, the pair of roses draw attention to the corsage of reddish green flowers pinned between her breasts. What at first appeared to be small details – props, even – are in fact significant statements of principle and intent.


It’s perhaps unsurprising – given my love of Manet and mandarins – that both ended up in my first novel, Wet Paint. Since the death of her best friend, 26-year-old Eve has been scraping along, waiting tables and cleaning her shared flat in exchange for cheap rent, keeping everything and everyone at arm’s length. She relies on her small routines – among them her weekly visits to the Courtauld Gallery, where she stands for hours in front of Manet’s painted barmaid. She remembers: ‘At university Suzon stared out at us from grimy laptop screens more times than I can remember. We’d gawk at her for hours, trying to read her mind. Now, I fix my eyes on hers.’

Suzon is trapped between the mirror and the bar, looking out at a blurry crowd; Eve exists in the hazy mid-space between education and adulthood, past and present. In time, like the brushstrokes that make up the crowd, her life and Suzon’s begin to blur. She, too, becomes a barmaid. Also, a life model: Like Suzon, she’s exposed to the male gaze. 

And the oranges? They provide a way in, and they provide Eve with a way out. When she goes to interview for the bar work, she steals a handful of clementines (she would call it borrowing) and tucks into them on a bench down by the Thames. ‘My knuckles sting as the juice of the orange seeps between them, my pink skin bleached chalky-white.’ In a sense, it’s an act of reclamation, a middle finger to the suggestion of original sin. In taking the forbidden fruit and stripping naked in front of a room full of strangers, Eve seizes control of her image and her story. 


Manet is famous for naked. When Luncheon on the Grass was first exhibited in 1863, few critics commented on the basket of fruit in the foreground. Even now, I’m having trouble identifying what’s what due to a lack of sources – alas, I think there may be peaches, possibly unripe figs, certainly cherries, but no oranges. The basket appears to have been casually discarded, together with the fair blue dress and the straw sunhat with the big floppy bow. The fruit has spilled onto the lawn in a pleasing curve punctuated with a rounded loaf of bread. A question mark, sort of.

Critics didn’t comment on the single pink rose either – there, roughly in the centre of the bottom of the canvas. And it was the same with the mixed bunch of flowers wrapped in paper in Olympia, exhibited at the Salon in 1865; Émile Zola remarked on the explosion of colours – white, blue, red, green – but that was it. 

So blinded were convention-ridden viewers by the presence of a starkly naked woman sitting beside two fully clothed men (with no mythological or allegorical explanation), and by the unwavering eye contact and nudity of another woman (not the expected goddess), that they failed to note the details. In ‘Manet’s Little Nothings’, an essay in the catalogue for Manet and Modern Beauty: The Artist’s Last Years, a 2019 exhibition held at the Art Institute of Chicago, Carol Armstrong writes: ‘The still life in the one was instrumental in updating its Renaissance-based nudity to the then contemporary world. And without the bouquet in the other, the notion of a sexual exchange – of a client sending a prostitute, or more likely a lover sending his mistress, a plea for her favours – might not have entered anyone’s head.’

Like those clementines in the crystal bowl back at the Folies-Bergère, the basket of fruit and the bouquet are rich with meaning. As Armstrong continues, whether Manet intended it or not, in Olympia, ‘the bouquet brought the viewer (implicitly a “he”) into the picture, implicating him in the interchange between the sender and receiver of the floral gift and opening up an equivalent exchange between him and the naked woman gazing out at him from the painting’s interior space.’ The bouquet provides a point of contact: The floral motif flits around the canvas – the pink bloom in the model’s hair, and the creamy flower-patterned shawl – and so does the viewer’s gaze.


The model for both Olympia and the unclothed young woman in Luncheon on the Grass was Manet’s favourite, Victorine Meurent, who appears in another of his artworks, Young Lady in 1866. What at first appears to be a more modest painting in fact still managed to subvert convention, presenting the young woman in a full format ordinarily reserved for state portraits. 

In contrast to the previous paintings, Victorine is now the epitome of elegant femininity, buttoned up in a silk dressing gown that glimmers pale pink against steel grey. The toe of one black shoe peeps out from underneath the hem, in dialogue with the black bow tied around her neck. In one hand she fingers a monocle; in the other a small bouquet of violets. Beside her, an African grey parrot with a beady eye perches on a tall wooden stand. Of greatest interest to this viewer, though, is the partly peeled orange in the foreground. According to some scholars, the portrait can be read as an allegory of the five senses – the orange standing in for taste.

Type Manet plus Young Lady in 1866 into your search bar, zoom in on the solitary piece of fruit, and you’ll notice how much care the artist has taken. The orange teeters on the edge of the stand’s base, its skin curling over and onto the floor like a loose item of clothing hanging over the edge of a wash basket. You can see the fuzzy white pith. A lone segment has been dislodged and placed deliberately on the ground. I wonder, did Manet have the scent of oranges on his fingers as he painted? Did he and Victorine each eat an equal share after?


Earlier this afternoon, I was talking to my husband about this essay, and what I’d written about my relationship with oranges – and his. He told me there are a couple of other things he doesn’t like about peeling them: they’re interactive (he has to poke his thumbnail into the fruit and risk getting squirted) and they leave his fingers feeling sticky.

It got me thinking that perhaps my love of oranges is one reason Manet and his paintings of modern life have stuck with me. The major moments and the minor details. Affecting, fresh, juicy.

Chloë Ashby is an author and arts critic. Since graduating from the Courtauld Institute of Art, she has written for publications such as the TimesTLSGuardianFT Life & Arts, Spectator and frieze. She is the author of Colours of Art: The Story of Art in 80 Palettes, a Times best book of 2022. Her debut novel, Wet Paint, was published in April 2022, and her second novel, Second Self, is due in July 2023.

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