Édouard Manet (1832-1883) was a French painter who bridged the gap between Realism and Impressionism. In this post, I take a closer look at his life and art. I cover:
- Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was fortunate enough to be born into a wealthy family in Paris on 23 January 1832. His father was a high-ranking judge and his mother had strong political connections, being the daughter of a diplomat and goddaughter of Charles Bernadotte, a Swedish crown prince.
- His father expected him to follow in his footsteps down a career in law. However, with encouragement from his uncle, he was more interested in a career as a painter. His uncle would take him to the Louvre on numerous occasions to be inspired by the master paintings.
- Before committing himself to the arts, he tried to join the Navy but failed his entry examination twice. Only then did his father give his reluctant acceptance for him to become an artist.
- He trained under a skilled teacher and painter named Thomas Couture from 1850 to 1856. Below is one of Couture’s paintings, which is similar to the early work of Manet. I always find it interesting to see how much a teacher’s work can influence the work of their students. That is why you need to be selective with who you learn from.
- When he was not training with Couture, he would spend time at the Louvre copying the works of the Old Masters. He also traveled to Italy, Germany, and Holland from 1853 to 1856 to see works from masters such as Diego Velázquez, Francisco José de Goya, and Frans Hals. This is something that may have been prohibitively costly to those who had less fortunate upbringings.
- He ended up opening his own studio around the end of his studies in 1856.
- The Absinthe Drinker is the earliest recorded painting from Manet. It features a man named Collardet, who was an alcoholic who roamed around the Louvre in Paris. An empty bottle on the ground and a pale-green glass of absinth next to the man set the scene. You can see the influences of the Old Masters with the use of deep shadows and a reserved color palette. Manet submitted this painting to the Paris Salon in 1859, but it was rejected by the jury, perhaps due to its dramatic subject, or perhaps due to Manet’s technical limitations at the time. Manet would go on to become more refined in his technique and adopt a wider color palette.
- In 1861, he had two paintings accepted to the Salon: The Spanish Singer and Portrait of Monsieur and Madame Auguste Manet. The Spanish Singer was well received by the Salon and was placed in a prominent position. Compared to the tight and highly-rendered works of other artists selected for the exhibition, Manet’s work appeared fresh and slightly unrefined.
- Portrait of Monsieur and Madame Auguste Manet depicts Manet’s parents. His father had a stroke resulting in his loss of speech. Manet did a great job capturing the saddened and lost expressions on his parents’ faces. But notice the subtle differences between the two: his father appears stern with his hand clenched, whilst his mother appears tired, perhaps weighed down by the pressures of looking after her husband.
- Luncheon on the Grass was one of Manet’s most controversial works. He submitted it to the Salon in 1863, but it was rejected due to its provocative nature. Manet subsequently entered this and two other paintings in the first Salon des Refusés (which is French for the “exhibition of rejects”), which was established by Emperor Napoleon III after more than 2,000 artworks were rejected by the Salon jury. French journalist Émile Zola had some supportive and wise words for Manet’s painting:
“The Luncheon on the Grass is the greatest work of Édouard Manet, one in which he realizes the dream of all painters: to place figures of natural grandeur in a landscape. We know the power with which he vanquished this difficulty. There are some leaves, some tree trunks, and, in the background, a river in which a chemise-wearing woman bathes; in the foreground, two young men are seated across from a second woman who has just exited the water and who dries her naked skin in the open air. This nude woman has scandalized the public, who see only her in the canvas. My God! What indecency: a woman without the slightest covering between two clothed men! That has never been seen. And this belief is a gross error, for in the Louvre there are more than fifty paintings in which are found mixes of persons clothed and nude. But no one goes to the Louvre to be scandalized.” (Source)
- In 1870, he served as a soldier in the Franco-German War. His studio was partially destroyed in the war, but the remains and surviving works were purchased by art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel for 50,000 francs.
- His painting Spring sold for US $65.1 million to the J. Paul Getty Museum in 2014. On an interesting side note, there is a documentary out on the Getty family which I recently started watching by coincidence named Trust. I come across the Getty name frequently when writing about famous paintings. It is on Foxtel Now for those interested.
- He passed away from illness in April 1883. His legacy includes around 430 oil paintings, 89 pastels, and over 400 other works on paper.
A Closer Look at Manet’s Paintings
I take a closer look at some more of Manet’s notable paintings below, starting with Claude Monet Painting in His Studio.
Manet was friends with many of the top Impressionists including Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Paul Cézanne, Camille Pissarro, and Berthe Morisot. His painting of Monet below is appropriately impressionistic, with broken color, loose strokes, and vague detail. Monet is pictured on a boat, perhaps with his wife, painting the surrounding landscape.
Below is a portrait of another famous artist, Berthe Morisot, painted with a conservative palette of grays and browns. Notice how distinct the lights and darks are; Manet made little effort to ease the transition between the two areas.
Manet was particularly skilled at painting dormant expressions, like that in the painting below. Many of his paintings have a mystique of “what is the subject thinking?”
In The Plum or Plum Brandy, a lady stares vacantly off into the distance as she holds an unlit cigarette. In front of her rests her plum soaked in brandy, after which the painting is named. The lady appears soft and fragile, with the pastel colors contrasting against the more dramatic colors in the background. The subtle use of outlining also gives the painting a stylized feel, typical of Manet’s later work.
Manet took an Expressionist approach in the painting below, depicting the execution of Emperor Maximilian. There is a misty haze as smoke from the guns fills the air. The shooters are left faceless and appear in vast numbers. This work perhaps deserves a mention on my post about dramatic paintings.
I love Manet’s use of color and brushwork in the painting below. You get a sense of the fleeting and busy nature of the scene, as people drink, smoke, and enjoy the concert. However, on the left-hand side of the painting is a dormant and saddened face. A cigarette in her hand and beer in front, she stares vacantly ahead, uninterested by the entertainment. What amazes me is how well Manet captured her emotions with such loose and unrefined brushwork.
Olympia is one of Manet’s most famous works which was exhibited at the 1865 Paris Salon. It depicts “Olympia” resting nude on the bed as a servant brings her flowers.
The painting was met with controversy when it was first exhibited at the Salon in 1865, not so much for the nudity of Olympia, but for her confrontational gaze and the suggestions in the painting that she may be a prostitute. The term “Olympia” was associated with prostitutes at the time and there are several hints at her sexuality and wealth (her hair, bracelet, earrings, the black ribbon around her neck, and the elegant bed cover).
French journalist Émile Zola had some harsh words to say about the painting and the nude lady:
“When our artists give us Venuses, they correct nature, they lie. Édouard Manet asked himself why lie, why not tell the truth; he introduced us to Olympia, this fille of our time, whom you meet on the sidewalks.”
The harsh reception demonstrates the conservative and often cruel nature of society at the time. People were more offended by the confrontational gaze of Olympia than the idea of the servent in the background.
Below is another one of Manet’s more impressionistic works. Out of all the artists I have written about, Manet certainly has one of the largest ranges in style, whilst still retaining an element of consistency throughout his work.
The painting below is remarkably complex, featuring a lady behind the bar, a background full of patrons, and many bottles and wines in the foreground. Manet goes back to that vacant expression for that lady behind the bar which he used in so many of his paintings. Notice how Manet used increased color, clarity, and contrast to bring the lady and bar in front of her forward in perspective. Everything else, including the lady with her back turned, appears more distant and hazy.
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