Not What Others See

Artist: Édouard Manet
Born: 23 January 1832, Paris, France
Nationality: French
Movements: Impressionism, Realism, Modern Art, Modernism
Died: 30 April 1883, Paris, France

Manet was the most important and influential artist to heed the poet Charles Baudelaire’s call to artists to become painters of modern life. He had an upper-class upbringing but led a bohemian lifestyle and scandalized the French Salon public with his disregard for academic conventions and striking modern images of urban life. A long association with the Impressionist artists he was an important influence on them and them on him. He also learned from the Realism and Naturalism of his French contemporaries and from 17th century Spanish artists. It is this dual interest in Old Maters and contemporary Realism that gave Manet the foundation for his revolutionary approach to art.

A Woman Pouring Water, 1858, oil on canvas.

Manet’s modernity lies in his keenness to update older genres of painting with injections of new content or by altering the conventional elements with and acute sensitivity to historical tradition and contemporary reality. He popularized the use of the all prima painting technique. Rather than a gradual build-up of colour in layers, he would lay down the hue that matched the final effect he sought from the start. Alla prima painting was widely used by the Impressionists as it suited the pressures of capturing light effects and atmosphere whilst painting outdoors. Manet’s loose handling of paint along with his schematic rendering of volume, led to areas of perceived flatness in his paintings.

A Boy with a Dog, 1861, oil on canvas

Manet was born into an upper-middle-class Parisian family. His father was a high-ranking civil servant and his mother was the daughter of a diplomat. With his two younger brothers, he grew up in a socially conservative and financially comfortable bourgeois environment. At thirteen he enrolled in a drawing class at The Rollin School. From an early age Manet had a passion for art, but to appease his father he agreed to go to the Naval Academy. He failed the entrance examination and joined the Merchant Marine to gain experience as a student pilot and voyaged to Rio de Janeiro in 1849. The following year he returned to France with a portfolio of drawings and paintings from his travels and used it to prove his talent and dedication to his father, who was skeptical of the artist’s ambitions.

Olympia, 1863, oil on canvas. Currently located at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France

Manet had an affair with the family piano teacher in 1849. This resulted in a child born in 1852, who was passed off to his lover’s family to avoid scandal. The child was introduced to society as his lover’s younger brother and Manet’s godson. For the art and for the social distraction Manet travelled to Italy in the following year. His father allowed him to pursue his artistic ambitions, albeit reluctantly. True to his contrary nature Manet joined Thomas Couture’s studio instead of going to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts whose modes he considered outdated. A product of the Salon system, Couture was an academic painter, but he encouraged his students to explore their own artistic expression rather than adhere to aesthetic demands. Manet trained under Couture for six years, leaving in 1856 to start up his own studio in rue Lavoisier. His financial security enabled to live his life and create art in his own signature fashion. A flaneur of Parisian life he translated his observations onto canvas. The family’s financial position also enabled him to travel through Holland, Austria, Germany and Italy. In his travels he met Fantin-Latour and Degas, both would become lifelong friends.

Moonlight on Boulogne Harbour, 1868, oil on canvas. Currently housed by Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France

Manet moved amongst progressive thinkers such as Charles Baudelaire and Gustave Courbet who believed that art should represent modern life rather than history or mythology. This was a radical shift from the status quo of the Salon with avant-garde artists suffering at the hands of a conservative public and critics. Manet was the focus of several of these controversies and the 1863 salon reused his paintings. He and other artists protested, and the Emperor relented allowing a secondary Salon des Refuses, so the viewing public could see what had been deemed unworthy.

Being included in the Salon des Refuses was upsetting to Manet’s ego and personal reputation. His rebellious instincts encouraged his desire to change the system of exclusion under which institutions such as the salon and Ecole des Beaux Arts operated. However he did not want them eliminated. His middle-class background had embedded Manet with certain ideals of achievement, and he wanted to be successful at the Salon on his terms, not theirs. The resulting creation of a somewhat unwitting revolutionary was arguably the creation of the first modern artist.

Controversy continued to follow Manet the following year when he produced Olympia which featured another nude of his favourite model, Victorine Meurent. He claimed to see truth in her face while he painted the entire body for the world to see. This proved to be too confrontational to the Parisian public when viewed at the 1865 Salon.

The Salmon, 1868, oil on canvas. Currently located at Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, VT, US

In 1862, following the death of his father, Manet and Suzanne married to legitimize their relationship although it is doubted their son ever knew his true parentage. Manet’s mother helped the two conspire to keep the secret from his father as the disgrace of an illegitimate child would have been intolerable.

In 1864, Manet lived on the rue des Batignolles and held court at the Café Guerbois from 1866 with artists such as Fantin-Latour, Degas, Pissarro and Cézanne, and from 1868 Monet, Renoir and Sisley. The meetings of the Batignolles Group were a mixture of personalities, classes and attitudes but all joined as independent-minded, avant-garde artists to pursue the principles of their new artistic styles. The gathering of such minds and talent on a regular basis lead to a great deal of mutual influence and a mixing of ideas influencing one another. Manet was an early leader with his avant-garde Realism, along with Monet and Renoir, who eventually emerged as the leaders of Impressionism.

The 1866 Salon refused further pieces from Manet and in response he held a public exhibition in his own studio. The following year Manet was excluded from the Paris Exposition Universelle and he didn’t submit to the Salon, instead he set up a tent near Courbet’s to exhibit his work outside the Exposition.

In 1861 Manet had painted a troupe of Spanish performers in 1861 and after visiting Spain in 1865 he had been interested in Spanish culture and was influenced by the works of Goya and Velázquez and was expressed both in style and subject matter. Manet was a staunch Republican and unhappy with Napoleon III’s government. The painting ‘The Execution of Emperor Maximilian, he gave a nod to Goya in the composition and implied the French government had an involvement in the death of Maximilian in Mexico.

A Good Glass of Beer, 1873, oil on canvas. Currently housed by Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA, US

Faintin-Latour introduced Manet to the Morisot sisters in 1868. Manet’s relationship with the painter Berthe Morisot was fraught. She became his student, he respected her as an artist and painter and she even sat has his model on several occasions. It was a multi-year and mutual infatuation both came from proper upright backgrounds, so an affair was impossible, and Morisot only saw Manet with a chaperone. Manet painted and taught Eva Gonzales and Morisot was deeply hurt when she found out. To avoid a domestic disturbance, she married Manet’s younger and less charismatic brother, effectively ending their personal relationship and Morisot never sat for Manet again, however she remained his biggest advocate.

Manet angered the Salon again in 1875 with a submission that showed a lighter palette and the influence of Monet’s Impressionism. In Argenteuil, Manet effectively sent the Salon a manifesto of the emerging style, intended for those who had not attended the group’s seminal exhibition in 1874. The Salon again rejected several of Manet’s works in 1876 so he responded by hosting another exhibition at his own studio which drew over four thousand visitors. Many in the press claimed the Salon was being unfair but Manet continued to be ostracized with a further denial in 1877. In 1878 he refused to submit to the Salon or to hold his own exhibition, instead he changed studio. In the same year ill health began to affect his daily life.

A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, 1882, oil on canvas. Currently located at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London, UK, Courtauld Gallery, London, UK

In 1880, after taking time away from Paris due to his declining health, Manet was awarded a 2nd place medal at that years Salon, enabling him to become a permanent exhibitor at all future Salons. Continuing his flaneur lifestyle, Manet recorded the modern changes in the streets of Paris and in Parisian life. He continued painting portraits of women, landscapes, flowers and still-lifes. Even when confined to his sickbed. Succumbing to a nervous disorder, confined to a wheelchair from gangrene Manet died at the age of 51. He left his estate to Suzanne with the obligation that she let everything to their son Leon upon her death, practically confirming Leon as his son. Manet is buried in the Passy Cemetery, Paris, France

©JG Farmer 2019

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