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"Let me paint the man like Manet, and the intention of his soul can go to the devil."

"That would be all very well if you could beat Manet at his own game, but you can't get anywhere near him. You can't feed yourself on the day before yesterday, it's ground which has been swept dry. You must go back. It's when I saw the Grecos that I felt one could get something more out of portraits than we knew before."

Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham

Does the sentence mean that you can't feed yourself on the past? What about the ground which has been swept dry? Is it metaphorically saying that there's nothing good left?

  • I think this Manet could be Édouard Manet. It sounds to me like the second character compare the first character to a seed. It's no use to imitate Manet. Doing that would be like feeding on what someone else had already done. They already swept the ground dry, metaphorically speaking. And a young seed can't grow from such swept dry ground. – Damkerng T. Nov 17 '15 at 8:13
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    The day before yesterday = recent history. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Nov 17 '15 at 11:52
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    Ah, so you must to go deeper in history and borrow techniques from Greco and other more ancient artists in order to create your unique style, because there are too many "Manet lookalikes". – CowperKettle Nov 17 '15 at 13:05
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    @CopperKettle: Too many Manet lookalikes. Exactly. epigone – Tᴚoɯɐuo Nov 19 '15 at 18:04
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+50

Feed oneself/an animal on X literally means a person or animal lives by eating X.

Cattle feed on grass. We feed cattle on dry grass.

"You can't feed yourself on the day before yesterday" means:

You can't live or sustain yourself (artistically) by trying to get/imitate something that is not very old like the day before yesterday.

The writer metaphorically compared the day before yesterday to something that people eat.

"It's ground which has been swept dry." means:

Many artists already tried and used all the artistic features of "the day before yesterday" and there is nothing left for you to get. Nothing very artistic or creative can come out there.

"Ground swept dry" could be better understood if you would imagine a grassland in Serengeti. If all the herds of buffaloes, zebras, and gazelles, etc. sweep through a grassland, there is no fresh grass left to feed on for any other herbivorous animals that come late. They should move on to another grassland to survive. If they stay there, they will die out.

The writer is emphasizing that a ground that has been swept dry and the day before yesterday are not the place where you should stay and try to get something. You have to go back further to the past where the ground has not been swept dry yet by others.

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Looking at the passage in a fuller context, the comments appear to be unmistakably right. The main argument the second speaker (Clutton) is making is that recent trends in painting missed much of the point of paintings, and that only other approaches (which coincidentally had been characteristic of past trends and past artists) can really fulfill that goal. Mixed in with that is a frank criticism that the first speaker, while reasonably skilled, isn't good enough to compete with the most trendy artists in their own game, either.

So "the day before yesterday" really brings together two different concepts in a subtle way. The first is that something two days old is likely a bit stale; it's not as fresh or as ripe as something brand new, and there's not as much room for competition there. The second is that it is, ironically, too new and trendy to have much staying power, as opposed to the timeless techniques the speaker is recommending instead. These are more implied than stated; it's a very skillful use of the language.

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