Manet is the blockbuster exhibition of the season in London. Advance bookings are among the highest in the RA’s recent history, so the show will doubtless help replenish the RA’s coffers. The RA, unusually quick to spot an opportunity, is offering ‘exclusive’ Sunday evening openings – for £30 (double the normal price) – although this includes a drink and an audio-guide.
So what is all the fuss about?
Never before have so many works – more than 50 – by Manet (1832-83) been assembled in this country. Some of the works come from private collections, and have therefore rarely if ever been on public display; most are from museums, not just in the UK, France and Europe, but from less accessible museums in the USA, Japan and Brazil. Manet, unlike his contemporaries, painted portraits all his life, yet, curiously, this is the first show devoted entirely to his portraits. Also, Manet, often dubbed ‘the father of modern art’, is one of the great painters of the 19th century and painted some extraordinary works, some of which are in this show.
Viewers today forget that Manet was a very idiosyncratic and avant-garde artist, who perplexed viewers and attracted the strident and merciless opprobrium of critics in his time. Luckily for Manet, he came from a well-to-do background (his father was a judge and his mother the daughter of a diplomat), was never short of money and therefore did not have to pay attention to critics nor depend on his art for his livelihood. This gave him the independence to work on the subjects that pleased him, to follow his own intuitions and tastes, and to take risks in his work. He obviously loved portraiture and felt no need to have a consistent, instantly recognizable style.
Manet is often dubbed ‘the father of Impressionism’, which is somewhat misleading, as in fact he eschewed most of the key tenets of the Impressionists. He did not like painting en plein air (much preferring studio work); did not like their light palette (preferring dark tonalities and indeed using a great deal of black); nor their loose, rapid brushwork (preferring the more academic, meticulous style of the Old Masters). He was not the least bit interested in conveying the effects of changing light or movement. Nonetheless, he was a close friend of many of his younger, Impressionist, artist contemporaries (Monet, Degas, Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro et al): he supported them and even bought many of their works, and they bought his. But he turned down invitations to show his work at any of the eight Impressionist exhibitions, which took place from 1874 to 1886.
Surprisingly, he did seek official recognition and, paradoxically, hankered to be accepted by the more academic and conservative Salon (the Salon juries had an aversion to the Impressionist painters, whose works were usually rejected, or poorly placed, if accepted). His first submission to the biennial Salon, The Absinthe Drinker, in 1859, was (unsurprisingly) rejected. In 1861 he tried again and two paintings were accepted. In 1863 he was again rejected, so chose instead to show his now celebrated Déjeuner sur l’Herbe at the Salon des Refusés (the alternative show where rejected artists showed their work): there it provoked one of the great critical and popular brouhahas in the history of art.
Manet produced about 400 works, mainly oils and pastels, in less than three decades. His life was cut short, as, though very faithful to his wife, he was stricken with syphilis (which he possibly inherited from his father). He had his left leg amputated in 1881 and died two years later, aged only 51.
He studied for six years under the academic painter, Thomas Couture, and spent much time copying old master paintings in the Louvre. During this apprenticeship, he visited Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands. The painters of Renaissance Venice and 17th-century Spain and Holland, such as Titian, Giorgione, Hals, Rubens, Velazquez and Goya, were to be both profound influences on his work.
What makes Manet distinctive is the paradoxes and inconsistencies of his style and techniques, some traditional and some resolutely modern and the fact that he did not really have a style – he had many styles. Seeing all the works in this exhibition, one could be forgiven for thinking they are by several artists, good and bad. The style varies, but so does the quality.
He did not execute preparatory drawings, preferring to paint directly onto the canvas. He did not favour the traditional ‘noble’ genre of ‘history’ painting – that is, paintings on allegorical, religious or mythological themes. Most of his paintings, even the genre ones, are portraits, usually portraits of his family and friends. He had a very wide circle of friends – leading artists, writers and musicians – whom he invited to the Tuesday and Thursday soirées he held in his apartment, to cafés and to his various studios in Paris. He did not paint aristocrats or social or Church dignitaries or official portraits, but members of the bourgeoisie, at leisure, at lunch or just enjoying a nice day in Paris. Indeed, Manet was very up-to-date in his paintings: he captured his time and the latest inventions, whether it was the flâneur, the balcony, the conservatory, the railway, the bicycle (or velocipede), the picnic, the concert in the park, the riding coat, flouncy dress or straw boater or indeed the new taste for Wagner. Also, like everyone, he was fascinated by photography (he made albums of photographic cartes de visite, many of which are displayed here, and had himself photographed several times) but he did not feel photography threatened his art, which he was convinced conveyed something which photography could not.
Ridiculed and excoriated by many leading critics, he was, however, vigorously defended by the Irish writer and critic George Moore, the young novelist Zola and the poets Mallarmé and Baudelaire, the latter exhorting him to paint the everyday world around him, the people and places of his time – to embrace modernity and realism. Manet thanked his supporters by inviting them to sit for him. (He also illustrated Mallarmé’s translation of Poe’s The Raven and his L’après-midi d’un faune in the 1870s.)
Manet was pre-eminently an urbanite, who lived almost entirely in the centre of Paris, a Paris that, thanks to Baron Haussmann and the train, for example, was being suddenly and rapidly modernized. A snappy dresser himself and very aware of fashion, he heeded Baudelaire’s advice and portrayed Parisians in their contemporary dress and at leisure.
Manet was also one of the first artists to consciously display his works seemingly unfinished. Many viewers were nonplussed by this, but Mallarmé sprang to his defense, declaring the works to be fully resolved. Visitors today might well challenge Mallarmé’s view with respect to several of the works on display.
Manet’s family (and friends) served both as sitters in his portraits and protagonists in his genre paintings. His wife, Suzanne Leenhoff (1829-1906), who had first entered the Manet household as music teacher to his two younger brothers and whom he married in 1863, was a constant presence in his work. Her son, Léon, whom Manet referred to as his son-in-law or godson, and who had been sired either by him or his father (who had had a liaison with Suzanne), also appeared frequently in Manet’s work. Surprisingly, he did only two self-portraits (though he appears in a minor role in some of his paintings).
The exhibition, which fills the entire floor of the RA, is divided into five thematic sections. I myself think a chronological approach would have been more enlightening.
The curators clearly felt a need to flesh out the exhibition and build round the small number of real masterpieces. Much, one knows, depends on what museums are prepared to lend and on quid pro quos, and thus the exhibition includes many inferior works. Manet was an inconsistent artist, and many of the works here are definitely not of the first order, and many should simply not have been included. They also devoted one entire room to Music in the Tuileries (from the National Gallery) which, whilst being interesting insofar as it shows a large group of Parisians at leisure and (apparently) listening to a Wagner concert, is not one of Manet’s masterpieces. Fishing is a landscape with contemporary figures but in which Manet included himself and his wife dressed in 17th century garb as Rubens and his second wife – odd but trite and poorly painted. The large unfinished portraits of Carolus-Duran and The Rider suggest that their scale defeated him. The Tragic Actor Philibert Rouvieres (from the National Gallery, Washington) is a large, clumsily worked painting; the portrait of Eva Gonzales, a young artist who knocked on Manet’s door and became his student, I personally have always found unconvincing and unprepossessing (even though it hangs on the walls of our National Gallery). In my view, a slimmer, more edited show might have been more effective.
Also, inevitably, some of the key masterpieces could not be loaned for whatever reason: notably Le Bar aux Folies-Bergères (1882) (down the road at the Courtauld), Olympia (1863) and Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863) (both at the Musée d’Orsay). Le déjeuner sur l’herbe in this show is the much smaller version (from the Courtauld).
Despite these shortcomings, the exhibition is definitely worth visiting for a number of important and beautiful works.
Berthe Morisot with a bouquet of violets 1872
The girl in the poster for the show is Berthe Morisot, an artist, who produced some very good works. She was the great-grand niece of Fragonard and became Manet’s sister-in-law (as she married his brother Eugène in 1874). She figures in 11 of Manet’s paintings. Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets (1872), showing the 31-year old woman, two years before she married Manet’s brother, dressed in the latest Parisian fashion, is an essay in two colours (mainly black – the eponymous violets are not easy to spot). It is direct and, though small, instantly captivating.
Le déjeuner (1868), from the Alte Pinakothek, is a wonderfully arresting work, dominated by the portrait of the 16 year-old snub-nosed Léon Leenhoff, looking a little dreamy and conceited, a young dandy/flaneur, in his fashionable black jacket and pert little straw hat. Like many of Manet’s works, it poses a little enigma: what is Manet trying to do or convey? It is not just a portrait of Léon, but a portrait of three figures as well as incorporating three still lifes.
The Portrait of Emile Zola (1868) is a magisterial work, showing the young novelist, seated at his desk, surrounded by books and art works. A complex work within a work, it incorporates four art works – a print by Goya after Velázquez’s Triumph of Bacchus and a print after Manet’s own Olympia (which Zola considered Manet’s greatest painting), and two Japanese works – as well as a still life of books and papers.
Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe , though lacking the impact of the much larger work at the Musee d’Orsay, is still a superb work. Inspired by Titian’s Fête Champêtre and Giorgione’s La Tempesta , it has the puzzling, mysterious feel of its antecedents, even though it is a sort of ‘family portrait’ as, his brother-in-law and his brothers sat as models for the two male figures, whilst Victorine Meurent, one of Manet’s favourite models, was the sitter for the naked woman. It caused a monumental furore at the Salon des Refusés in 1863, but today just seems quietly enigmatic.
Victorine Meurent was the model for the Street Singer (c1862), a wonderful work of grey monotones, in which the itinerant singer is shown full-length, fashionably dressed, carrying a guitar and, oddly, hitching up her dress to reveal a bit of her petticoat and stuffing her face with grapes.
Victorine also posed for the main character in The Railway or the Gare Saint-Lazare (from the National Gallery, Washington). It is a beautiful, bright, sunlit work, which met with hostility when it was shown at the 1872 Salon but now considered one of Manet’s masterpieces. It is another curious and enigmatic work, as the railway is hardly visible (suggested only by a puff of steam), the main character is seated on a stone step by a black metal rail, wearing a fashionable jaunty hat, blue coat and dress, holding a book and a puppy in her lap; beside her, with her back to us, a young girl in a pretty diaphanous white frock with big blue bow, stands holding the rail, presumably looking at the train. Here again, Manet infringes the conventional rules of portraiture or, more likely, fuses portraiture with genre painting.
One of the first 19th-century artists to approach modern, everyday subjects, Manet was a pivotal figure in the transition from Realism to Impressionism, breaking rules and ignoring traditional hierarchies that made history painting superior to still lifes or portraits. His early masterworks engendered great controversy and served as rallying points for the young painters who would create Impressionism. Today, these are considered watershed paintings that mark the genesis of modern art. Renoir declared that Manet was as important to the Impressionists “as Cimabue or Giotto were to the Italians of the Quattrocento.”
Manet: Portraying Life is sponsored by BNY Mellon
TERENCE RODRIGUES, besides being an author and critic, is an international art consultant, advising private clients on art sales and acquisitions.
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