The Ragpicker

This painting is considered an icon of 19th century collections. It was painted by Édouard Manet around 1870 and is titled The Ragpicker. One who gazes upon this canvas may be awestruck by its imposing size of more than 6 feet high and 4 feet wide. Parisian viewers would have been familiar with the ragpickers of the day, but nonetheless, this man represents a subject matter that wasn’t usually celebrated in art. Painting a raggedy man on a canvas of such size was considered unthinkable. Large canvases were saved for religious or historical figures. Those who had fallen in the cracks of a new industrial society, such as Paris was in those days, were often left hidden, not projected on a canvas.

Rag picking is an obsolete profession in Paris today but these salvagers were familiar occupants of the 19th century urban landscape. Ragpickers sifted through the leftovers of daily life, primarily rags, which they sold to paper manufacturers but also kitchen scraps, soap, and other castoffs that were left out for trash collectors, much like the broken champagne bottle, oyster shells, and lemon peel in the lower left corner. Sorting garbage might sound like work for the truly destitute but ragpickers were regulated semiprofessional recyclers of city waste. Still, this painting remains a powerful depiction of those typically overlooked or underrepresented in art history.

Seeing this painting reminded me of a book I read years ago, The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning. In it, he emphasizes the grace of Jesus in ministering to the “ragamuffins”—the ragged, disreputable people of his day—the sick, the tax collectors and sinners, the woman caught in adultery. Jesus often served these “ragamuffins,” while the religious leaders of the day opposed him and refused to dirty their hands with society’s problems. Manning says, “We are all ragamuffins. Each of us come beat-up, burnt-out, ragged and dirty to sit at our Father’s feet. And there he smiles upon us—the chosen objects of his ‘furious love.’”

Being Human connection: May we never look down on anyone or deem anyone “less” than ourselves. Our connection to God invites us to connect with others by recognizing we are all ragamuffins—none of us deserving of grace but all of us having grace extended to us in the person of Jesus Christ.

Featured art: Édouard Manet, The Ragpicker, c. 1865–1870. Norton Simon Museum, Pasadena, California.