A touch of france: Manet, the Man Who Invented Modern Art

Isabelle SPAAK
(e-mail: isabelle.spaak@wanadoo.fr)

Manet, the Man Who Invented Modern Art
An exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay (5 April – 3 July 2011)
I . Spaak, France

Seldom has a painter been as decried and mocked during his lifetime as Édouard Manet. Whenever he presented his paintings at the Paris Salons, where the exhibited works were supposed to reflect the aesthetic canons of official art, Manet was disparaged, criticized. Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass) (1863) and Olympia (1863) scandalized the public, outraged by Manet’s disregard for accepted standards of behavior. Critics scoffed at the force of his colors, at his bold perspectives. Yet rarely was an artist so energetically supported by his peers. Painters, writers, and politicians came to the defense of this charming, urbane, determined man. Often considered as a precursor of the Impressionist movement, in which he counted as friends Renoir, Monet, and others, he was above all a solitary painter striving for reality in the intimacy of his studio. In the catalogue of an exhibition organized at his expense on the fringe of the 1867 Salon he wrote “Mr Manet has no intention of overthrowing old methods of painting or of creating new ones. He simply seeks to be himself and not someone else.” Innovative, unfettered by links with any formalism, Manet was the first modernist painter.

Medicographia. 2011;33:219-225 (see French abstract on page 225)

“Monsieur Manet is curt, has the last word. He captures his figures vividly, doesn’t shrink before the harshness of nature, invigorates objects by detaching them one from another. His whole being wills him to see by spots, by simple and vibrant flecks.” These words of the novelist Emile Zola appeared in the 7 May 1866 edition of the newspaper L’Événement, in the first of a long series of generally complimentary articles on Édouard Manet (born and died in Paris: 1832-1883). This trenchant tribute to the immense talent of the artist whose Fifer he had just discovered at the 1866 Paris Salon was paid at a time when Manet was under constant attack by the art world for paintings that drew an angry response from chroniclers and public alike at the Salons, those annual displays of artworks intended to convey what in France was deemed to be good pictorial sense. Lola de Valence (1862), Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe [The Luncheon on the Grass] (1863), Olympia (1863), and The Dead Toreador (1864-1865) engendered controversy because of their subject matter and workmanship, yet Zola was not alone in championing Manet, whose painting was praised by major figures in the arts and public affairs: Delacroix, Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Degas, Monet, Fantin-Latour, Antonin Proust. A precursor of Impressionism, a movement of which he was not part, Manet remained a “revolutionary” throughout his life, the artist of modernity, the “liberator of painting.”

Sarcasm and gibes

Many were the criticisms leveled at Manet over the years. In 1860, his portrait of his parents—Portrait of Monsieur and Madame Auguste Manet—was deemed vulgar, too dark, a depiction of the resignation of an austere upper class couple of Second Empire France after years of married life. In fact, Manet was in no way seeking to idealize intimacy, but rather to capture a moment in time, a social image of an era. It was a clear reference to the Portrait of Monsieur Bertin by Ingres who, wrote Manet, had sought “to symbolize an age.”

The Fifer. 1866, oil on canvas, 161×97 cm. Musée d’Orsay,
Paris, France.

© Musée d’Orsay (dis. RMN)/Patrice Schmidt.

Manet was once again at the center of controversy at the Salon des Refusés (Salon of the Rejected) in 1863, when he was accused of transgressing the rules of perspective, and of morality in The Luncheon on the Grass. Manet’s depiction of a naked young woman seated on the grass among trees beside two fully clothed men clashed with the social customs and esthetic canons of the day. Yet through its attention to detail in the splendid still life of the foreground and its simplification of the rest of the composition, this realistic scene firmly placed Manet in a direct line from Gustave Courbet. Uproar followed at the 1865 Paris Salon. In his Olympia, Manet wittily side-stepped tradition by replacing the faithful little dog of, say, Titian’s Venus of Urbino, by a black cat, fur on end, tail erect, at the foot of a courtesan’s bed. The public was not amused. Not by the cat, and certainly not by the naked young woman reclining on her bed. Nothing was right with this painting. The model’s “livid color,” “the lines drawn in charcoal, her bloodshot and greenish eyes.” Fun was made of the black ribbon around her throat, the lascivious pose, the exaggerated importance given to the flowers (perhaps from a client), to the black maid beside the bed.

Portrait of Monsieur and Madame Auguste Manet. 1860, oil
on canvas, 110×90 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.

© Musée d’Orsay (dis. RMN)/Patrice Schmidt.

What outraged public and critics alike was above all the theme: this modern Venus awaiting a client. “What is this yellow-bellied odalisque, a base model picked up I know not where, who represents Olympia? Olympia? What Olympia? A courtesan, no doubt” wrote Jules Claretie in Le Figaro. There may have been over three thousand canvasses at the Salon, but visitors seemed only to have eyes for Olympia. Laughter too, sniggers and protests. Outraged, some even threatened to take down the picture. Antonin Proust later wrote that Olympia escaped destruction “only because of the precautions taken by the administrators,” who ordered the canvass to be hung beyond the reach of canes. “At a height,” wrote Jules Claretie mockingly, “where even lousy paintings are never hung, above a giganticdoorof the last roomwhere itwas hard to tell whether one was looking at a pile of naked flesh or a pile of linen.”

Manet later wrote that “the insults rained down,” and to his friend Charles Baudelaire, then in Brussels, “I wish you were here my dear Baudelaire. I would have liked to have your opinion of my paintings.” The poet wrote back: “So I have to speak of you again. I have to make every effort to show what you are worth. What you demand is really foolish. They scorn you; the jokes annoy you; they don’t do you justice, etc, etc. Do you believe you are the first man in this position? Are you a greater genius than Chateaubriand and Wagner? Much scorn was heaped on them. Yet they survived. And so as not to swell you with too much pride, I will say that these men are models, and that you, you are just the first in the decay of your art.” Zola was surprised at being “the first to praise Monsieur Manet unreservedly.” He determined to “lend him a helping hand” and to rebel against the image created of him “as an outcast, an unpopular and grotesque painter.” Addressing the artist, Zola wrote: “Console yourself. You have been set apart, and you deserve to live apart. You don’t think like all those people, you paint according to your heart, according to your flesh, yours is definitely an assertive personality. Your canvasses are ill at ease alongside the foolishness and sentimentality of the time.”

Olympia. 1863, oil on canvas, 130.5×190 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.

© Musée d’Orsay (dis. RMN)/Patrice Schmidt.

That Olympia is a reference to Velázquez and to Goya’s The Naked Maja is unquestionable. And the pose of Titian’s Venus of Urbino probably inspired that of Victorine Meurent, Manet’s favorite model and an impudent young Olympia. But unlike the young woman of the Venetian master, there is nothing sweet, ideal, or chaste about Victorine. Manet didn’t make of her a symbol in the way the professors at the School of Fine Arts taught, but a young woman of her time. No allegorical alibi. A common prostitute like so many others of the period. “I render the things that I see as simply as possible,” explained Manet. “So, Olympia, what could be more naïve? There’s harshness I amtold. It was there, I saw it. I painted what I saw.” For that is the art of Manet. Painting that does without eloquence, an art inspired by a reality rendered with tremendous inventiveness and exemplary spirit, as well as “great brutality, rare vigor, and vivid hues” (Zola).

Lola de Valence. 1862, oil on canvas, 123×192 cm. Musée
d’Orsay, Paris, France.

© Giraudon/Bridgeman Giraudon.

A revolutionary who admired the old masters

Original itmay be, butManet liked to cultivate his style through reference to the oldmasters—the Italians Titian, Tintoretto, and above all Veronese, Rubens, the Dutch, and the Spanish, especially Velázquez, “the painter’s painter,” in whom he found his “ideal in painting.” This taste for Spain—theater, flamenco, bullfighting, tragedy—inspired in Manet’s work bright colors, violent blacks, piercing looks, in masterpieces like Lola de Valence (1862), The Spanish Ballet (1862), and Victorine in the Costume of an Espada (1862). And Boy Carrying a Sword (1861), the model for which was eleven-year-old Leon Koëlla- Leenhoff (1852-1927) who often posed for Manet, notably for Soap Bubbles (1867) and Luncheon in the Studio (1868). Leon’s mother was Suzanne Leenhoff, but it is unclear which Manet fathered the child, the painter’s father Auguste or Édouard himself, who married Suzanne in 1863 after Auguste’s death.

Concision and elegance

Manet was accused of making his models look ugly. So it was that when he painted the young wife of one of his friends in the Portrait of Madame Brunet (1860), without disguising the distinctive features of her homely face, she fled in tears on discovering the canvass, which she declined. Manet simply refused the gradations of shadows that were fashionable. His paintings contain nothing precious or sentimental, but instead great poetry and bold perspectives, whether frontal, as in Races at Longchamp, or shifted, as in The Dead Toreador (1864-1865) whose lifeless body is lit as if by a projector against a dark background, lying diagonally across the canvass from bottom right to upper left.

The Dead Toreador. 1864-5, oil on canvas, 75.9×153.3 cm. The National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, USA.

© Widener Collection/Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington.

“Conciseness in art,” wrote Manet, “is a necessity and an elegance (…). In a figure, seek intense light and dark shade, the rest will follow. … And then, cultivate your memory, for nature will never give you just information— it’s like a guardrail that stops you falling into triteness. You must always remain the master and do what pleases you. Not a chore! Oh, no, not a chore!” AndManet’s appeal was achieved through unstinting work in the studio, accurate observation of objects, and by following his own path.

A kindly socialite

An upper middle-class Parisian, delightful, never pompous or haughty, Manet was charming, attractive to women, and to his models and friends. Most certainly though he was not the frivolous character that some made him out to be. A studio painter, Manet openly proclaimed his admiration for the great masters and worked alone while admirably depicting what was new in his time. He never stopped inventing, provoking, or reflecting the sensuality of the world that surrounded him. At his funeral, Degas is reported to have said “He was greater than we thought.”

Around 35 years of age, Manet was, Zola wrote, “of average height, on the small rather than tall side. Light brown hair and beard; deep and narrow eyes with full of youthful liveliness and ardor; characteristic mouth, thin, mobile, a tad mocking at the corners.” A dandy in love with the world who “finds secret voluptuous delight in the scented and luminous refinement of evenings,” continued Zola. “He is doubtless drawn in by his love of bright and broad colors; but deep within him there is also an innate need for the distinction and elegance that I find in his works.” Zola contrasted the Manet who charmed because of his physique and manners with the depiction by “contemporary wags” of “a kind of ragamuffin, a ridiculous bogeyman.”

Manet was a man-about-town, a keen observer of Parisian life in cafés, at the Races at Longchamp—the latest craze among Parisians—at the theater. “I like this existence,” he wrote. “I like the receptions, the noise, the lights, the parties… in a word the colors.” He recreated an atmosphere in a few lines, annotated the drawings, made a new study, and then painted the canvass. As close to reality as possible, but with his way of seeing, his angle, his touch of genius. “A most delicate accuracy between the tones. A somewhat dry charm, penetrating, truly human,” wrote Zola.

_ The rapport with his models
“When I start something,” said Manet, “I tremble to think that models will fail me, that I won’t see them again as often as I would wish or in the conditions that I’d like. They come, they pose, they leave thinking: he’ll finish it on his own. Well actually no! One finishes nothing alone.”

Each figure in Music in the Tuileries Gardens (1862) is identifiable as a friend who posed patiently for Manet. As for those in the Masked Ball at the Opera (1873), in his quest for realism Manet had them come in groups to his studio.

The situations he depicts are plausible, real. A girl asked to pose as a Waitress Serving Beer (1879), fearing she might be propositioned, insisted her fiancé be present, so Manet included him in the foreground, smoking his pipe.

The Balcony. 1868-9, oil on canvas, 170×124.5 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.

© Giraudon/Bridgeman Giraudon.

_ The rapport with his models
“When I start something,” said Manet, “I tremble to think that models will fail me, that I won’t see them again as often as I would wish or in the conditions that I’d like. They come, they pose, they leave thinking: he’ll finish it on his own. Well actually no! One finishes nothing alone.”

Each figure in Music in the Tuileries Gardens (1862) is identifiable as a friend who posed patiently for Manet. As for those in the Masked Ball at the Opera (1873), in his quest for realism Manet had them come in groups to his studio.

The situations he depicts are plausible, real. A girl asked to pose as a Waitress Serving Beer (1879), fearing she might be propositioned, insisted her fiancé be present, so Manet included him in the foreground, smoking his pipe.

The Execution of Emperor Maximilian. 1867-8, oil on canvas, 252×305 cm. Städtische
Kunsthalle, Mannheim, Germany.

© Giraudon/Bridgeman Giraudon.

A man of his time, Manet depicted contemporary events— The Execution of Emperor Maximilian (1867), and luminaries of the age—Clémenceau, Zola, Mallarmé, Antonin Proust, and Henri Rochefort, the founder of the newspaper La Lanterne who in 1874 escaped by boat from a penal colony in New Caledonia, where he had been deported for life for supporting the 1871 Paris Commune.

It was a young woman from a good family who would become one of Manet’s most bewitching muses. A friend of Degas, Renoir, and Monet, a painter herself, Berthe Morisot was a member of the large group of Impressionists that Manet rubbed shoulders with. Arranged by their mutual friend Henri Fantin-Latour, the meeting between Berthe and Manet took place in 1868 at the Louvre where she was copying a painting by Rubens. Manet took an interest in Berthe’s work and suggested they meet again. He discovered that she was both passionate and gentle, as well as a “devilish beauty,” especially because of her eyes, which were an intense black, a favorite of the painter, emblematic of his style. Édouard Manet was the painter Berthe most admired among her contemporaries. Sometimes she was inspired by the same subjects; Manet did several portraits of her. Shortly after their meeting, he painted The Balcony (around 1868-1869), a studio composition inspired by Goya’s Majas on a Balcony.

_ Femme fatale
Berthe Morisot is shown seated, pensive, a closed fan held in interlocking fingers, her right forearmresting on the balcony guard rail. Standing beside her the young violinist Fanny Claus is flirtatious. Behind them stands a man smoking a cigar (another close acquaintance: Antoine Guillemet, a landscape painter).

Berthe Morisot With a Bouquet of Violets. 1872, oil on canvas,
55×39 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.

© Giraudon/Bridgeman Giraudon

On leaving the 1869 Salon where Le Balcon was exhibited, Berthe wrote to her sister: “I found Manet, wearing a hat in full sunlight, looking stunned. He asked me to go and see his painting because he didn’t daremove. I’ve never seen such an expressive physiognomy. He laughed, then seemed worried, saying that the picture was very bad, but then adding it was a great success. Decidedly he has a most charming nature which pleases me greatly. His paintings produce as always the impression of a wild, even tart fruit. They are far from displeasing. I am more strange than ugly; it appears thatthe epithet femme fatale has been circulating among curious onlookers.” After The Balcony, Berthe posed for Manet more than any other model. Their artistic understanding allowed Manet boldness and freedom, as in the portrait Berthe Morisot With a Bouquet of Violets (1872) where she is dressed in black, her hair tousled beneath a black hat, the white neckline of her blouse accentuated by the mauve of the flowers. Paul Valéry would later say “I do not rank anything in Manet’s work higher than a certain portrait of Berthe Morisot dated 1872.”

Manet always had a predilection for flowers and fruits, whether in large compositions, such as the mandarin oranges and roses in front of the waitress of A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1881-1882), or as the main subject of his delightful still lifes, such as Pinks and Clematis in a Crystal Vase (1882). Peonies, lemons, asparagus, peaches, figs, and grapes are everywhere.

But make no mistake, these are still lifes painted in the artist’s studio, and not in the open air as by his Impressionist friends. It is true Manet on occasion left Paris to paint outdoors, as when he visited his friend Monet at Argenteuil, but it would be a mistake to confuse him with these painters of fleeting impressions. And anyway, it matters little who Manet is confused with. What is important is that he always sought to be true to what he saw, leaving others to say whatever they will. _

Pinks and Clematis in a Crystal Vase. 1882, oil on canvas,
56×35.5 cm. Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.
© Giraudon/Bridgeman Giraudon.