Édouard Manet is one of the most remarkable and fascinating artists of the 19th century. His life is full of contradictions – he loved to dress well and be a ‘man about town’ but was also an extremely hard worked devoted to his art; he was sharp tongued and had an acerbic wit, yet was also generous and compassionate; he was outwardly a respectable married man, yet had a succession of lovers and admirers; he had a great influence on the Impressionist painters yet refused to exhibit with them.
Born into a wealthy Parisian family, Manet attended the Ecole des Beaux Arts under Thomas Couture where he learnt to draw and to admire the great classical painters of the past, but he challenged the academic system of art training.
The Dejeuner sur L’Herbe of 1863 shocked the public and art establishment by making references to the great paintings of Giorgione, while depicting a notorious nude model sitting with two men dressed in contemporary fashion. Olympia, exhibited at the 1865 Salon, went further suggesting a prostitute receiving flowers from a male client.
Manet made references to the work of Titian and Giorgione as well as to contemporary pornographic images. In 1867, he began work on his most political painting, The Execution of Maximilian which attacked the government of Napoleon III, which Manet as a staunch Republican could not tolerate.
During the 1870s Manet produced his most Impressionist paintings influenced by Claude Monet and by Berthe Morisot, whom he adored. He painted some wonderful café interiors, culminating in The Bar at the Folies Bergère, 1882. Manet was also great portrait painter, able to capture the sitters’ character in a few seemingly effortless strokes of his brush. He painted many of the great figures of his day – Zola, Cemenceau, Mallarmé, as well as a succession of beautiful women.
Manet’s private life is intriguing. He met Suzanne Leenhof when he was very young, having a son by her and eventually marrying her, but his heart lay with Berthe Morisot, who conveniently married his brother Eugène. He died a painful death aged only 51.
This is a fascinating lecture, full of art history and anecdote, about a fascinating man.
Lecture 1: Challenging the Rules
Manet was born into a wealthy and distinguished Parisian family who wanted their son to join the French Navy. In 1849 his father reluctantly let him join the studio of Thomas Couture where he remained for 6 years, drawing constantly and copying Old Masters in the Louvre. Inspired by the writings of Charles Baudelaire and the Realist paintings of Gustave Courbet, Manet began painting pictures of everyday life such as The Absinthe Drinker. His love of Spanish art, especially Velázquez, is also evident.
In 1862 he produced his first major work – Music in the Tuileries, a painting about everyday life in Paris. This was followed by The Dejeuner sur L’Herbe which caused a sensation at the Salon des Refusés in 1863. Critics were shocked by the image of a naked model, Victorine Meurent, sitting on the grass between two men in contemporary dress. A mystery surrounds Manet’s marriage to Suzanne Leenhoff – who exactly was the father of her son Leon? What was Manet’s relationship with Victorine Meurent? We will probably never know the answers.
Lecture 2: Olympia and Maximilian
As if Manet had not shocked the art establishment enough with the Dejeuner, he went on to exhibit Olympia at the 1865 Salon. Again the critics and public alike were enraged by Manet’s sacrilegious borrowings from Titian and Giorgione and his use of a well known demi-mondaine as a model – ‘a kind of female gorilla’ according to one critic.
The only writer to defend Manet was Emile Zola who was to become a close friend. A staunch Republican, Manet disapproved of Napoleon III and when the young Emperor Maximilian, who had put on the Mexican throne by Napoleon, was executed as a common bandit, Manet picked his brushes to create his polemical work The Execution of Maximilian.
In 1870, France declared war on Prussia and there followed a series a defeats for the French army, culminating in the capture and abdication of Napoleon III. The Prussians then laid siege to Paris, and Manet who stayed in the city, witnessed the hunger and suffering of the people. This was followed by the horrors of the Paris Commune, from which Manet fled to the safety of Arcachon.
Lecture 3: Manet and the Impressionists 1872-1883
Shortly after returning to Paris, Manet was visited by the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel who bought twenty five paintings and finally Manet’s work had become commercially successful. I
n 1874, the first Impressionist Exhibition took place, but Manet would not take part – “I will never exhibit at the shack next door: I enter the Salon through the main door, and fight alongside all the others”.
However, his art was deeply influenced by that of Claude Monet who became a close friend. During the 1870s Manet painted alongside Monet at Argenteuil. During this period he was deeply in love with Berthe Morisot, a highly talented Impressionist painter, who appears in many of Manet’s works. Again mystery surrounds this affair, but we know that in 1874 Berthe married Manet’s brother Eugène, and many believe that Manet encouraged this to ‘keep Berthe in the family’.
The 1870s are a highly productive period for Manet with some wonderful paintings of café interiors, culminating with The Bar at the Folies Bergère. But he was also painting portraits both of men and women as well as delicate still lives and flower studies.
Manet’s health deteriorated as syphilis took hold and he died after an unsuccessful operation to remove a syphilitic leg. He died aged just 51 but he had transformed modern art by successfully challenging the power and influence of the Ecole des Beaux Arts and the Salon, and by painting striking images of modern life. Renoir said on his death: “Manet was as important to us as Cimabue or Giotto were to the Italians of the Quattrocento”.