"Manet's portrait of me? Terrible, I do not have it and do not feel the worse for it. It is in the Louvre, and I wonder why it was put there". These final comments on the painting were made late in Clemenceau's life. However, of all the portraits of Clemenceau, few radiate such strength and assurance.
Finding it difficult to get his model to pose, Manet probably used a photograph, no doubt the one taken by Wilhem Benque dating from 1876 in which the politician is depicted standing with his arms similarly folded. The painter may well have also used a small photo of Clemenceau's head from an album belonging to the Manet family now kept in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
Here the artist captures in paint all the allusive qualities of his pen and ink drawings and paintings from this time. With a few Japanese-style dashes and outlines, he succeeds in expressing all the energy, determination, steeliness and the humour of Clemenceau.
In its conciseness, its absence of any setting, this portrait is, twenty years before its time, one of the first great 20th century portraits. Its pictorial power, in the opinion of some critics, detracts from the truthfulness of the image. "For Manet to paint Clemenceau's portrait, he must have decided to put all of himself into it, and almost nothing of Clemenceau," wrote Malraux in 1957. But today this portrait is considered to be not only a triumph of pictorial modernity, but also a work of great psychological truth. Because of this balance found in great portraits, Manet's presence takes nothing away from Clemenceau.