Manon Lescaut (The Tragic End)
(Pascal Dagnan-Bouveret)


Signed, inscribed and dated: P. A. J. DAGNAN-BOUVERET, Reduction d’après l’original exposé au Salon de 1878 Paris, Sep-Oct 1878

Click the link below to access a  video about films, opera and literature relating to Manon Lescaut and the painting above.

Dagnan-Bouveret’s painting Manon Lescaut, taken from Abbé Prévost’s novel, was his first public success, earning him a third-class medal for a larger version of the painting shown at the 1878 Salon. The latter work has disappeared without trace, but the artist painted this smaller version, described by him in an inscription carefully written beneath his full signature, as a ‘reduction of the original.’ Here Manon’s distraught lover, des Grieux, is digging his beloved’s grave and has resolved to follow her in death.

Manon’s tragic demise followed a duel between the nephew of the governor of Louisiana and des Grieux who, wounded in his arm (one can see some blood has seeped from under the crude bandage) and believing he had killed his opponent, hastened to Manon so they could escape New Orleans together. The young couple fled into what the novel’s author, Abbé Prévost, describes as the ‘desert’ near New Orleans but, tragically, Manon died, whether from exposure and exhaustion or some unknown malady we are not told. Judging by the state of her clothes and shoes, it would seem she had succumbed to a fatal and fast-moving infection. Des Grieux, maddened by grief, resolved to bury her where she fell and, after digging a hole in the soft sand, lay down beside her to await his own demise.






Fig. 1 Maurice Leloir, Manon dying in the arms of Des Grieux, watercolour on paper.

This dramatic episode is not quite the end of the tragic story of des Grieux and Manon Lescaut; even though he has lost her, he was destined to be saved and return to France, only to find his father had died from sorrow at his son’s disgrace and flight. For the reader, the novel’s moral was ambiguous, and for some shocking. This beautiful young couple, passionately in love, had fallen spectacularly from grace to crime, murder and prostitution, leading to prison. Their flight to America may have been a chance to start again, but even then, tragedy intervened. Nonetheless, despite the many whom they wronged, all is somehow justified by their love, portrayed as a noble emotion that excused everything, however monstrous their conduct. It is this that scandalised many and led to the book being twice banned and burned, in 1733 and 1735.






Fig.2. J.J. Pasquier, 1753, Death of Manon

Dagnan-Bouveret’s Manon Lescaut was both history subject and a naturalist work, the artist took a well-known and popular story, convincing in its immediacy but also true to nature in the way it is portrayed. Manon lies dead on the sand, the painting of her body’s oblique angle requiring considerable skill in a partial foreshortening, while des Grieux looks down in sorrow, pausing from the laborious work of digging her grave with his bare hands. The sandy ‘desert’ ends with a rocky outcrop at right and a low mountain range behind, above which some distant crows are ominously flying towards the viewer.

The earliest image of des Grieux grieving over the body of Manon was by Jacques-Jean Pasquier,2 for the 1753 edition of Prévost’s novel, presenting Manon’s body in the foreground and des Grieux kneeling behind, looking up from his task (fig. 2). It is similarly set in the ‘desert’ described by the author, while the young man’s broken sword lies on the ground, reminding us of the duel that had led to the lovers’ flight from New Orleans. An 1839 illustrated edition of Prévost’s novel, with engravings after Tony Johannot (1802-1852), portrayed des Grieux holding the dying Manon in his arms, shortly before she expired, a pose followed in the story’s later presentation in operas, when the dying heroine sang a last aria.

Dagnan-Bouveret’s Manon Lescaut provided a direct inspiration for his near contemporary, Maurice Leloir. The latter, in his portrayal of the same subject (fig. 3), copied the figure of des Grieux, for which the artist’s brother, Gabriel Dagnan had posed. Leloir also painted a watercolour of Manon’s last moments, dying in Des Grieux’s arms (fig. 1). As the defining moment of the tragedy, Manon’s dying moments also provided the source for a post card advertising the first performance of Puccini’s opera in 1893 (fig. 4), which, adapted Manon’s pose from Dagnan-Bouveret’s painting (known from a popular engraving).3






Fig. 3. Maurice Leloir (1853-1940), Death of Manon Lescaut (New York, Dahesh Museum)

Dagnan-Bouveret, the son of a tailor, was brought up by his maternal grandfather, whose family name, Bouveret, he added to his own. After admission to the École des Beaux Arts and a short spell in the studio of Alexandre Cabanel, he became a favourite student of Jean Léon Gérôme, alongside Jules Bastien-Lepage and Gustave Courtois (whose cousin he later married).

He was ambitious and, encouraged by Gérome, his first exhibited work was a large-scale mythological figure subject, Atalanta, that he had completed in 1874 and presented at the 1875 Salon. Rather than choose the oft-painted moment when Melanion (Hippomenes) defeats the athletic heroine by dropping golden balls that she then stoops to collect, the artist painted her nude and triumphant, the body of her defeated rival lying dead with the bloody knife she had used to kill him stuck in the ground at her feet. The Atalanta was bought by the state following the Salon, an unusually speedy recognition of the talents of a twenty-three-year-old making his debut, and sent to the musée des Beaux-Arts, Melun, where it remains today.

By 1877 the public was prepared for another success, this time an equally shocking scene when the frenzied Maenads descended upon Orpheus to tear him to pieces – Dagnan-Bouveret was later persuaded by the purchaser, the inventor Lazare Weiler, to repaint the work and leave only the anguished figure of Orpheus. 1878 was a significant year as not only did the artist present Manon Lescaut at the Salon but accompanied it with a portrait, of M. de Rochetaille, a wealthy landowner, advertising that he was available as a portraitist, a speciality perhaps more likely to produce a reliable income than ambitious subject paintings. Although he entered but failed to win the prix de Rome in 1876, his Atalanta was chosen for exhibition in the Exposition Universelle, a further official validation of his rising reputation.






Fig. 4. Post card for the first performance of Manon Lescaut by Giacomo Puccini, 1893.

Dagnan-Bouveret continued to enjoy a highly successful career as a portraitist, from the mid-1880s as a painter of Breton life (some of his most important Breton subjects may be seen in the great museums of the Eastern United States4), and occasional subjects from mythology or literature. He was particularly acclaimed in 1879 for A Married Couple at the Photographer (Lyon, musée des Beaux-Arts) The Accident (Baltimore, Walters Art Museum5) and Bouderie, both from 1880, the latter a small painting of his friend a Gustave Courtois6 in his studio (recently on the art market).7 In 1883 he chose a Shakespearean subject painted several times by Delacroix, Hamlet and the Grave Diggers (New York, Dahesh Museum) and while he continued to paint literary subjects, portraits and contemporary-genre, he gradually became more deeply religious, his faith influencing his choice of Breton subjects. The musée d’Orsay has a significant group of paintings by him ranging from portraits to In the forest, from 1892 (a gathering of woodsmen and a young woman), a large (3.22 x 5.25 m) painting of The Last Supper (on loan to the museum of Arras), and a profoundreligious subject, The Bread Blessed (1885). By the time of his death Dagnan-Bouveret’s academic style was long out of fashion, although in 1914 he was elected president of the then artistically conservative Académie des beaux-arts (founded in 1816 and part of the Institut de France). His last years were saddened by the death of his only son, Jean, a doctor who succumbed to the Spanish ‘flu epidemic in 1918.

The tragic tale of Manon and des Drieux has inspired at least three other novels as well as paintings, ballets, operas and films – the earliest being a ballet by Jean-Pierre Aumer with music by Fromenthal Halévy,8 in 1830. This was followed by a retelling of the story by Georges Sand in Leone Leoni, published in 1835, which reversed the sexes of the two lovers with des Grieux replaced by Juliette, who was tricked into a series of extravagant and sordid adventures by the noble Venetian, Leone Leoni. Alexandre Dumas fils, whose La Dames aux camélias (1848) was identified by contemporary critics as inspired by Prévost’s novel (and, in turn, inspired Verdi’s opera, La Traviata), differed by having the hero, Armand, break completely with Marguerite and only return when she is dying. Five operas were based directly on Prévost’s novel – the first, Manon Lescaut, by Denis Auber in 1856, was followed in 1884 by Jules Massenet’s Manon (and in 1894 by a sequel, Le portrait de Manon) and in 1893 by Giacomo Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, perhaps the most popular operatic version of the story. The most recent operatic retelling was by Hans Werner Henze, in Boulevard Solitude, of 1951, set on a platform in a Parisian railway station at the end of the World War.






Manon, film by Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1949, with Michel Auclair as Robert Dégrieux and Cécile Aubry as Manon Lescaut.

The first of eleven films with the title Manon, or Manon Lescaut, was produced in France in 1912 followed by an American version in 1914, both now lost. The most successful cinematic production was probably Manon, directed in 1949 by Henri-Georges Clouzot, set during and just after the Second World War, and beginning with the lovers escaping France on a boat destined to take survivors of the Holocaust to the Holy Land. Their tale is then told in flash-back, with Dégrieux, a resistance fighter, given custody of Manon, a young woman accused of sleeping with a German and about to have her head shaved. He fell in love and contrived her escape but after a series of mishaps they find themselves on the refugee boat and confide in the captain, who allows them to disembark in secret There they are attacked by some Bedouin, Manon was wounded and died and Desgrieux buried her; the film ends with a silhouette of him kneeling by her grave.






Abbé François Prévost d’Exiles (1697-1753)

The original novel’s author, the Abbé François Prévost (1697-1763), despite his ecclesiastical title, could not be described as having a clear vocation for the priesthood. Having grown up far from Paris, Prévost had arrived there in 1722 planning to train as a Jesuit; the temptations of the capital led to his expulsion for misconduct and flight to Amsterdam, where he opened a café. He was then commissioned as an army officer (1716-19), serving under the duke of Berwick in Catalonia, before joining the Benedictines as a novice in 1721. He was eventually ordained a priest in 1726, but his commitment to the church seems to have been superficial, at best. Meanwhile he turned to writing, with his first novel (1721) satirising the Jesuits before he was given responsibility for editing the Gallia Christiana, while actually spending his time on the first of the seven volumes of his Mémoires et aventures d’un homme de qualité qui s’est retiré du monde. The lovers’ tale was the seventh, and final in this series, titled the Histoire du Chevalier des Grieux, et de Manon Lescaut. In qualifying love as justifying all, Prévost was evidently ready to believe that it also justified breaking his own religious vows, fathering a child with his publisher’s wife and having a long affair with the courtesan, Hélène Eckhardt (known as Lenki). He may also have been involved in some criminal activity, being imprisoned in London for two years for fraud.

The novel begins, like the others in the series, with a narrator, a ‘man of quality’ named Renoncour, who, arriving for a dinner party at the Normandy town of Pacy-sur-Eure, sees a group of women of ‘bad character,’ condemned to be transported to America (to the French colony of Louisiana). Among them he espies Manon and is immediately struck by her beauty and elegance; at the same time he sees a good-looking young man who appears desperate to reach her. Renoncour approaches him and finds he had followed the carriages transporting the women from Paris but refused to disclose his identity. He explained to Renoncour they are in love and he wants to free her but is broke. Renoncour takes pity on him and gives some money to the guard to let the young man speak to his beloved and then goes on his way. Two years pass, and returning from London, Renoncour spends the night in Calais where he comes across the same young man, who has now returned from America and, at dinner, tells Renoncour his adventures. The reader then learns the whole sorry story of Manon and how she came to her end.






J.J. Pasquier, Renoncour encounters Manon and Desgrieux, 1753.

The young hero, des Grieux, was of a noble family and his father had wanted him to become a knight of Malta; on his way to join the Order he stayed the night in an inn, where he saw Manon, who had been sent by her parents to a life in a convent. He contrived a meeting, where he confessed to having fallen in love and that same night they eloped; overcome with mutual passion, they found an apartment where they became lovers while he resolved to ask his father for permission to marry. Manon, fearing this would be refused when he explained he needed his father’s financial support, claimed she could take care of their finances. Manon then slept with a rich financier who had approached her without des Grieux knowing; when he was suspicious and challenged her, she persuaded him of her innocence. He believed her, and immediately returned to his family to ask formal permission to marry and give up his commitment to the Order of Malta.

His father heard the whole story, but considered him naïve and refused his consent, locking his son in his room and forcing him to stay at home for the next six months. Des Grieux then learned from his closest friend, Tiberge, that Manon was now living with the financier and emotionally devastated, resolved to give her up and study for the priesthood. Then, by chance, he saw her in Paris, they were reconciled and again fled together, finding an apartment on the outskirts of the city; for a while they were able to live on the money Manon saved from her relationship with the financier.

Manon’s brother, Lescaut, who the reader soon learns is a malign influence, then arrived and moved in with the couple, living with them until their apartment burned down. With their money running out, Lescaut suggested to des Grieux that they exploit Manon’s charms and send her to seduce the financier whom she had abandoned in Paris. Des Grieux refused but instead turned to gambling and, motivated by the need to satisfy Manon’s extravagant tastes, learned to be a successful cheat.






J.J. Pasquier, Manon biding adieu to Desgrieux, Leacaut looking on (1753)

Des Grieux proved to be a skilled card player and for a while they lived well, but when they were robbed and left homeless again, Lescaut persuaded his sister to return to her wealthy lover. Des Grieux, desperate and urged on by Lescaut, formed a plan with Manon to steal from the financier. The theft succeeded but they were traced and arrested; he was confined in the Saint-Lazare, a rather privileged prison for young noblemen and she was sent to the much more unpleasant Salpêtrière. They managed to escape, but only after des Grieux knocked out one of the guards. By chance, a man whom he had cheated at cards saw and pursued them; des Grieux killed him, thus adding murder to his list of crimes. He once again turned to his old friend Tiberge who, still loyal, generously came to their aid after they had escaped.

Left destitute again, des Grieux now returned to gambling and cheating but the son of the financier whom they had robbed decided to take his revenge, contriving an incident which again left them in prison. Des Grieux’s father came to visit, chastised his son and while obtaining his release forbade him to see Manon again, and to ensure their parting was final, arranged for her to be sent to America. Des Grieux managed to follow her to Pacy, where he met the narrator, and then volunteered as a sailor on the ship taking the women to America. He told the captain that he and Manon were married and, when they arrived in New Orleans, the captain told the governor, who was immediately sympathetic to the young couple, but did not know the whole story of their crimes. Manon assured des Grieux that she was a reformed character and promised to be faithful. He now confessed to the governor that they were not yet married and asked him to approve their union – the governor’s nephew, who had fallen in love with Manon, upon discovering she was free to marry obtained his uncle’s support to marry her. He challenged des Grieux to a duel and was wounded, but des Grieux (who had a wound to his hand) thought he had killed the young man and fled into the desert with Manon, where she died. There, the scene of her death and her lover’s determination to bury and then share her fate, so emotively painted by Dagnan-Bouveret, almost ends the drama. The governor, however, had started a search and des Grieux is saved, while his loyal friend Tiberge travelled to New Orleans to beg him to return. Des Grieux agreed, only to find that his father had died of sorrow; it was at this point that des Grieux once again met Renoncour and told his story.






Jules Massenet, Manon (1884), Sébastien Guèze (Chevalier Des Grieux) and Patrizia Ciofi (Manon), Opera de Marseille, 2015.

Certain parts of the story had some factual basis, as the Scottish financier, John Law, who had founded the Compagnie d’Occident, which became in 1719 the Compagnie perpétuelles des Indes, had successfully proposed a solution to the need to populate France’s colony of Louisiana by sending young women to settle and marry there. Called the filles de la cassette, each received a dowry from the government and one among them, was a certain Marie-Anne Lescau, called Manon, from Amiens, who was sent to Mobile, then the capital of Louisiana. Was she the character on whom Prévost based his tale, or was she perhaps in part Prévost’s lover, Lenki? Whatever the truth behind this story it continued to resonate for artists, composers, writers and film makers into the present century.

1 I resolved to bury her and to wait for my death on her grave… I had not difficulty in opening the ground where I stood, for it was a sandy plain. I broke my sword to dig [the grave] but I found my hands more useful for the purpose. Weisberg, op. cit., p. 141.

2 Died 1785, he also illustrated other best-selling novels including Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa in the translation by Abbé Prévost.

3 By the Milan based music publisher Casa Ricordi.

4 The older US museums have a range of works by the artist but the Breton subjects are the best known. The Metropolitan Museum of Art owns two paintings, The Pardon (1886) and The Madonna of the Rose (1885); the Boston Museum of Fine Arts has two paintings, Breton Woman (1887) and a Landscape (1908); Philadelphia Museum of Art owns a contemporary genre scene of Les Bohémiens, called a Gypsy Family (1883) and a Woman from Berne (1887) along with two lesser works; the Chicago Art Institute owns a Woman from Brittany (1886) and held a Dagnan-Bouveret retrospective exhibition in 1901.

5 The Walters also owns a fine portrait of a violinist, from 1884.

6 Dagnan-Bouveret’s Portrait of Gustave Courtois (1884), is in Besançon, musée des Beaux-Arts.

7 Sotheby’s, New York, 5 May 2011, $314,500.

8 1799-1862, Halëvy was Bizet’s teacher and the uncle of Ludovic Halévy, the sometime friend of Degas with whom he spectacularly fell out over the Dreyfus scandal.

9 This film was awarded the Lion d’Or at the Venice film festival, 1949. In 1968 a Franco-German-Italian version starring Catherine Deneuve and Samy Frey, was set in Tokyo and Paris.

Watch this video on the films, opera and literature relating to Manon Lescaut and the painting above.

Manon Lescaut – YouTube


70 x 99 cm
oil on canvas
Gabriel P. Weisberg, Against the Modern – Dagnan-Bouveret and the Transformation of the Academic Tradition, Dahesh Museum of Art, New York, and Rutgers University Press, Brunswick, New Jersey and London, 2002, pp. 48-49, 141; Daniel Sassi, Dagnan-Bouveret « Les couleurs de sa vie », 2007.
[Related painting, now lost] Paris, Salon, 1878, no. 622. Manon Lescaut. Je formai la résolution de l’enterrer et d’attendre la mort sur sa fosse… Il ne m’était pas difficile d’ouvrir la terre dans lieu où je me trouvais : c’était une campagne couverte de sable. Je rompis mon épée pour m’en servir à creuser, mais j’en tirais moins de secours que mes mains.1 L’abbé Prévost, Manon Lescaut.


I resolved to bury her and to wait for my death on her grave… I had not difficulty in opening the ground
where I stood, for it was a sandy plain. I broke my sword to dig [the grace] but I found my hands mor useful for
the purpose. Weisberg, op. cit., p. 141.
Where is It?
Matthiesen Gallery
Historical Period
Realism to Impressionism - 1840-1900
Price band
Sold or not available