The Art of Édouard Manet

A brilliant Parisian artist and forefather of the Impressionists

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Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets (1872), by Édouard Manet. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France. Public domain. Source

There are some artists whose work sits easily in the imagination. Claude Monet is one, with his ‘series’ paintings — haystacks, poplars and lily ponds at Giverny. Then there are artists whose body of work is less easy to pin down.

Édouard Manet (1832 — 1883) is one of the latter. With Manet, there is something indefinite hanging in the air. The paint on the canvas seems to be still alive, as if it could glide into new arrangements in front of your eyes.

Moreover, during a professional career of little more than twenty years — he died of syphilis at the age of 51 — there is remarkably little uniformity in his subject matter. Religious and historical works rub up against modern urban scenes. And unlike most other artists, his high-points are scattered throughout his working life, with a painting such a Olympia made at the start of his career, and A Bar at the Folies-Bergère just a year before he died.

Manet is often garlanded with the title ‘the first modernist painter’. In constructing a timeline of art history, it is useful to place him at the juncture that would lead to Impressionism, and Impressionism as the first landmark on the road to modern art. Yet, if Manet is a forefather of the Impressionists, he has a weight and enigma all of his own.

Portrait of Emile Zola (1868), by Édouard Manet. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France. Public domain. Source

In spite of his influence over the younger set of outdoor painters, Manet himself did not count himself among the Impressionist faction. One way to understand this is to recognise that throughout his career he always worked to gain acceptance in the Paris Salon — the much renowned annual exhibition at the Paris Academy of Fine Arts.

When, in 1873, a group of painters whom we now recognise as the Impressionist core, including Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Morrisot, Degas and Cézanne, founded an alternative exhibition, after many had had their work refused by the Salon, Manet kept faith with the official Academy show.

He worked hard to be admitted to official Salon. At the show, huge crowds of visitors paraded past several thousand works of art, hung frame-to-frame from ceiling to floor. Paintings were arranged in alphabetical order, so that Manet’s works appeared alongside those of other artists whose names also began with M. To be seen at all, let alone noticed by the critics, was not an easy feat.

For this reason, Manet was eager for his paintings to stand out. Whilst his work was not calculated to cause controversy, he was committed to producing paintings that were bold and immediate in their impact. Public notoriety soon followed. His work Olympia (1863) caused especial outrage, principally because spectators were presented with an apparently classical image recreated in a profoundly contemporary setting.

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Venus of Urbino (1538), by Titian. Uffizi Gallery. Public domain. Source

The antecedent of Olympia is Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538), which shows a nude young woman, traditionally identified with the goddess Venus, reclining on a couch in the sumptuous surroundings of a Renaissance palace.

Manet’s updated version shows a nude woman confidently reclining on a chaise lounge, wearing a black ribbon around her neck and a gold bracelet on her wrist. A servant is shown bringing her a bouquet of flowers.

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Olympia (1863), by Édouard Manet. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France. Public domain. Source

The nude of Olympia is clearly a prostitute. That in itself was not controversial in 19th century Paris; rather it was the manner in which Manet depicted a prostitute that caused affront among the critics.

Whilst Titian’s Venus is demure and coy, Manet’s nude is far more assertive. She sits up to meet our gaze. The sleeping dog in the Titian painting — traditionally a symbol of fidelity — is replaced by a startled black cat, which gives a clue as to the manner in which Manet wished to revise the image.

In many respects, the early Titian version is more sexualised. What caused alarm among viewers of Manet’s painting was that it appeared to rebuke popular conventions. The nude courtesan, in occupying an ambiguous demeanour, breaks with the historical customs of male fantasy in art.

Manet’s work defied popular understanding precisely because it relinquished the traditions it seemed to echo. This was the nub of the problem — for those who had one. Looking back now, we tend to celebrate Manet’s transgressions as a challenge to convention, but to his contemporaries, his paintings had a directness about them that lacked refinement, exacerbated by the flat brushwork and the loose handling of paint. The work is enticing, equivocal and self-aware — all attributes which we would now designate as ‘modern’.

“An artist must be a spontaneist,” he once said, which points to the flavour of his aesthetic ambitions. He was also keen on Courbet’s remark about seascape painting — “It’s not a seascape, it’s a time of day” — he said. “That’s what people don’t fully understand yet, that one doesn’t paint a landscape, a seascape, a figure; one paints the effects of a time of day on a landscape, a seascape, or a figure.”

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The Balcony (1869), by Édouard Manet. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France. Public domain. Source

Manet’s proto-modernist credentials are most obvious in his subject matter, which grew more defined as his career went on. From bourgeois female friends to outdoor scenes of recreation, subjects which Meyer Schapiro described as “Spontaneous sociability, of breakfasts, picnics, promenades, boating trips, holidays and vacation trips.” Such things dealt with the new urban environment felt in the emergence of the 19th century city. They leave behind the traditional contexts of community and church behind, replacing them with commercialised entertainment, high-fashion and socialising.

Manet was adventurous and unconventional in his artistic personality. His works, peaceful and serene as many of them are, contain a certain disjuncture. A subtle agitation of elements. If it were possible for a surprise to occur gradually, then Manet’s paintings seem to achieve it.

Take The Railway, for instance. Painted in 1873, the setting is the Gare Saint-Lazare station in the heart of Paris, which was to be a favourite subject of Claude Monet just a few years later.

Manet shows us a young woman looking out at us, her gaze even-tempered and curious. She is sat on a bench before an iron fence, holding a sleeping puppy and an open book in her lap. We have caught her in the act of reading; she looks up to consider us; her fingers inside the pages of the book suggest she is moving back and forth between chapters. Since the dog is fast asleep, then she has probably been sat their for some time. Next to her is a little girl watching a train pass through the station behind.

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The Railway (1872–73), by Édouard Manet. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., USA. Public domain. Source

The urban landscape depicted in The Railway is at once serene and turbulent. The two figures are dressed in contemporary urban fashion. The hulk of the train is abbreviated into a cloud of steam. A condition of the 19th century city environment— or as the critic Robert Hughes put it, “the cultural compression of city life” — is captured here in all its myriad forms: femininity, intellectual freedom, childhood curiosity, industrial development, travel and change.

And what are we to make of the iron railings? A compositional pattern or a barrier? Manet spoke proudly of the iron grating motif, which “boldly stretches across the canvas”. My own reading is that the iron railings accord with Manet’s interest in proximal nature of modern life: people and industry living side by side, swapping and sharing perceptions. The effect of the railings is to place the viewer within the same space of the two figures, providing an intimacy of time and place. Along with the light and loose use of paint, which establishes the textures of the dresses and skin tones in just a few strokes, the painting captures a brief moment in time.

Paintings like this don’t happen by chance. The “abruptness of nature” — as Emile Zola once remarked about Manet’s style — is the result of close study and an inquisitive eye. And this is the remarkable quality of Édouard Manet: how his oil paintings capture the interplay of perceptions of his subjects — the looks and glances, the way people stand and gaze — and makes it seem like it’s happening right in front of you. It’s as if the paint is still wet.

Later this month, the Chicago Art Insitute will hold its first exhibition devoted exclusively to Édouard Manet, focusing on the transformation of the artist’s style in his later years.

Written by

Art historian and art critic, writer, artist. Author of “How to Read Paintings”

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