In 1875 they collaborated on an illustrated French translation of Edgar Allen Poe’s story, The Raven. Then in 1876 Mallarme published the poem “Après-midi d'un faune” with engraved illustrations by Manet. The poem went on to inspire Debussy’s symphonic poem and then Nijinsky’s ballet. Mallarme was working as an English teacher at the Condorcet school. Nearly every day, he would stop on his way back from work and call on Manet. The two men would discuss art, literature – even cats. Mallarme had once been the editor of a fashion magazine – apparently the two men also discussed ladies’ fashions. More seriously, during this time, Mallarme wrote a long article for an English magazine praising Manet’s work. The article placed Manet as the leader of the movement of Impressionist painters. To thank Mallarme, Manet painted this portrait of the writer.
The painting was produced in Manet’s studio. But it is a million miles from the stiff and formal portraiture of great men that we often see at this period. Mallarme is lounging in his seat, leaning on some cushions, smoking a cigar, one hand in the pocket of his jacket. The canvas is relatively small and the whole attitude of the sitter indicates someone who is at ease in the artist’s company. The hand holding the cigar rests on some papers – perhaps a recent manuscript that the two men have been discussing.
The portrait has been described as a good likeness, and it therefore leads us to wonder why Manet didn’t get commissioned to paint portraits. The answers are various. He had the habit of not glazing his pictures – in fact he frequently didn’t finish them which wouldn’t have pleased paying customers. But the underlying reason is probably reputational - his portraits, as in this one of Mallarme, are just too different from the contemporary style of portrait, for rich patrons to want them.
Furthermore, the critics of the time were hostile to this casual, spontaneous style, in which the artist expected the viewer to approach the portrait in a spirit of thoughtfulness. One newspaper writer described a portrait by Manet as “indecent and barbarous”. Not really what the average affluent bourgeois was seeking in a portrait painter. So instead, we have portraits like this one, of the artist’s lifelong friend, in which we feel that Mallarme could at any second look up and take another puff of his cigar, and this despite the fact that Manet has eschewed “realism” in the likeness.