Manet: The Painter of Modern Life

Portraits or genre scenes?
The Royal Academy exhibition offers great insight into Manet’s portraiture, although I think the real subject of the show is his interest in depicting modern life. It is definitely one not to miss, opening on January 26th. Choosing the paintings for the exhibition must have been difficult: what makes a portrait rather than a genre scene? Some paintings in the exhibition are arguably genre scenes with small-scale portraits. I believe Manet was actually combining both, with the ultimate aim of representing modern life. Baudelaire once claimed that modern life was the only subject worth painting because this is the context the artist knows and understands best. The exhibition includes many private portraits, i.e., not commissioned, for sale or for public viewing, which look unfinished – and by that, I don’t mean impressionist-like! This could be related to the fact that Manet, born into a wealthy family, didn’t need to sell his paintings.

Fashion, the modernity touch
An aspect that wasn’t highlighted as such, but that was strongly present in the show is Manet’s high use of fashion in his representation of modern life. Modern life in a painting can be depicted by industrial innovation (e.g. impressionists placing trains in their paintings), decor/environment and clothing. The latter was the subject of a sublime exhibition: ‘L’impressionisme et la mode’ (previously shown at the Musée d’Orsay and at the NYC’s Met from Feb. 26th – see my comment in French). ‘L’impressionisme et la mode’ was a display of the impressionist painters’ desire to paint figures of their epoch and, through fashion, they were able to bring the modern world into their art. Examples in the current exhibition include a portrait of Manet’s sister-in-law in a highly fashionable black outfit (Berthe Morisot With a Bouquet of Violets) and Manet portraying his student, Eva Gonzalès, as an artist painting but in a flowing white dress that takes centre stage of the painting.

Manet’s modern life through his friends and contemporaries
The inclusion of a bicycle (The Velocipede) – that had just been invented – and the recently added iron chairs in the Tuileries garden (Music in the Tuileries Garden) also show Manet’s willingness to reflect the modern era in his work. Similarly, Manet painted his contemporaries in the art, poetry and music world: genre scene painting ‘Music in the Tuileries gardens’ features portraits of fellow painters Fantin Latour and Bazille and the poet Baudelaire. Manet used in many of his paintings his family and friends, painting his wife Suzanne and his (illegitimate) son for instance, without necessarily identifying them. Professional model Victorine Meurent is an exception to the rule (and is deserving of her place in the last room of the exhibition) who Manet painted in the ‘Déjeuner sur l’herbe’ and the Olympia (not exhibited here but replaced by the wonderful ‘The railway’). His portraits range from rapid execution in energetic brushstrokes (e.g., Berthe Morisot, G. Moore, Carolus Duran) to finely detailed (T. Duret, Zola). Also worth mentioning is his virtuoso use of pastels in the portrait of Suzanne Lemaire and a study for the celebrated painting ‘The balcony’.

Manet’s influences…
Manet famously refused to take part in any Impressionist exhibition, which were organised in rebellion against the official Salon. He preferred to exhibit in official circles, having high aspirations for official recognition and was probably unwilling to be associated with rejected artists. He nevertheless influenced and was influenced by Impressionism: ‘The Swallows’ shows his transition between the North European landscape style and Impressionism. With a smoother touch than Monet, an Impressionist style is clear in paintings like ‘A game of croquet’ and ‘In the garden, Monet family in their garden at Argenteuil’. As an admirer of Velasquez, we can also see a clear influence of Spanish art in ‘Boy blowing bubbles’ and his portrait of Marcellin Desboutin (Degas’ absinthe drinker) as well as his heavy use of black. He also shows his admiration for Japanese art in his portrait of Zola, which includes a Japanese print. In a clin d’œil to the Old masters too (Titian), Manet painted a servant looking for something in the background in Zacharie Astruc’s portrait.


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