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Manet: Portraying Life

Published 31 January 2013

Known as a rebel, and a thorn in the side of the French Academy, Manet challenged the status quo through his portraiture, painting friends, family, and Parisian society.

  • From the Winter 2012 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Canonised by art history as the heroic modernist who challenged the French Academy’s rules with such radical compositions as Déjeuner sur l’herbe, Olympia and The Execution of Maximilien, Edouard Manet (1832-83) is less well known for his portraiture. Yet for his artist contemporaries, it was often the portraits that made the greatest impact. The Railway (1873), shown at the Paris Salon of 1874, confirmed the young Paul Helleu in his chosen vocation, while Jules Bastien-Lepage had a career-changing epiphany in front of The Balcony (1868-69). In 1883 Paul Gauguin was delighted to clinch an argument with a conservative acquaintance by getting him to acknowledge the sheer undeniable quality of Manet’s painting of his parents, from 1860.

  • Edouard Manet, The Railway

    Edouard Manet, The Railway, 1873.

    Oil on canvas. 111.5 x 93.3 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Horace Havemeyer in memory of his mother, Louisine W. Havemeyer. Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

  • Commissioned portraits often tell us more about the aesthetic ideas and fashions of an era than about the artist. Happily, Manet took on remarkably few portrait commissions, thus retaining control over the undertaking, bringing it to a flourishing conclusion or, on occasion, abandoning his attempt. Not only did he pick and choose his models, he innovated with sharper lighting, more natural poses and working alla prima (wet on wet paint), then scraping back the paint, rather than making deadening revisions to his bold brushwork.

    The roll-call of Manet’s sitters cuts a fascinating swathe through Parisian society of the Second Empire and early Third Republic, at one level offering us a highly idiosyncratic sampling of the capital’s haute bourgeoisie and intelligentsia, on another, a glimpse into Manet’s own world. For the common denominator linking Manet’s portraits is the artist himself. He was the lynchpin of his social network and each portrait – be it of family members, fellow artists, musicians, actors, actresses, politicians or art critics – adds something to our still incomplete understanding of the artist.

    Curiously, questions still remain about the basic facts of Manet’s life. In 1860 he set up home with Suzanne Leenhoff, a Dutchwoman who had taught the piano to his younger brothers. She had given birth to an illegitimate son in 1852, Léon Koëlla Leenhoff, whose paternity is uncertain and was passed off as her younger brother.

    Why, one wonders, did Manet saddle himself with this readymade family to which no further children were added? Why did he wait until his father’s death to marry Suzanne? He was clearly fond of both, but if Léon was the result of his own youthful indiscretions, as is sometimes suggested, why was he never legitimised? Suzanne regularly appears in Manet’s work, such as Mme Manet in the Conservatory (1879) but the artist does not disguise her increasing corpulence. Manet’s many portraits of other, more glamorous, women such as Isabelle Lemonnier and Madame Guillemet betray his roving eye and attraction to the svelte ladies of his circle.

  • Edouard Manet, Mme Manet in the Conservatory

    Edouard Manet, Mme Manet in the Conservatory, 1879.

    Oil on canvas. 100 x 81 cm. The National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo. Photo Børre Høstland.

  • For an idea of Manet himself, we largely have to rely on others. His correspondence is businesslike, lively and amusing rather than introspective or revelatory, and unlike, say, Van Gogh, Manet only painted a couple of self-portraits.

    But he was a handsome man, as several painter friends testified: Fantin-Latour painted him in Atelier in Les Batignolles in 1870 at the centre of a group of admirers; Degas captured him in relaxed, debonair pose in M. and Mme Edouard Manet, from 1868-69; while Carolus-Duran, the successful society portraitist, left two tentative and thoughtful head-and-shoulders studies. Manet reciprocated with a life-size plein air portrait of Carolus-Duran as swaggering country squire (1876). That Manet should have adopted and been defeated by his overambitious project – the portrait was left unfinished – speaks to the intense rivalry between the two. Manet recalled their encounter as a duel involving an inconclusive exchange of bullets.

    Contemporaries remembered Manet’s charming temperament. His future sister-in-law Berthe Morisot, who first met him in the Louvre in 1868, recorded his demeanour at the following year’s Salon, the setting for so many of his torments. He was hovering, not daring to approach his two exhibited paintings, The Balcony for which Morisot had posed with Fanny Clauss, and the The Luncheon (1868). “I have never seen such an expressive face as his,” wrote Morisot “he was laughing, then had a worried look, assuring everybody that his picture was very bad, and adding in the same breath that it would be a great success.” Most critics of the time were nonplussed by the lack of readable narrative in these works.

  • Edouard Manet, Street Singer

    Edouard Manet, Street Singer, c. 1862.

    Oil on canvas. 105.8 x 171.1 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Bequest of Sarah Choate Sears in memory of her husband, Joshua Montgomery Sears. Photo courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

  • Given Manet’s sensitivity to criticism and craving for public recognition, it is curious that he acquired, early on, the reputation of rebel and hell-raiser. If he was a young man in a hurry in the 1860s, he later suffered greatly for it, believing his critics had misunderstood his aims. Yet throughout his career, confronting the obdurateness of the jury and getting himself a prominent place at the Salon, was like an itch he had to scratch.

    The problems were mostly caused by his startlingly bold assaults on the elevated genres of historical painting and allegory, but within portraiture, too, Manet found scope for enigmatic compositions. He extended the genre’s conventional boundaries in inventive ways, notably by encroaching on the territory of genre scenes in such semi-legible compositions as The Luncheon, and confounding his detractors, such as the critic Albert Wolff. One critic asked whether The Railway should be considered a double portrait or a genre composition.

    In fact, the composition for The Railway was set up by Manet, posing his favourite model Victorine Meurent – also seen in the Street Singer (c.1862) – as the woman in the black silk bonnet, whose lustre he so lovingly catches, leaving it unclear whether she is the child’s mother, elder sister or nursemaid. As Stéphane Mallarmé recognised, the painting’s very inconsequentiality is crucial to its modernity.

    Much is made of Manet’s modernity. Where the technological advances of his time were concerned, this work reveals him to have had a typically oblique rather than celebratory approach, infiltrating the railway of the title into an essentially domesticated setting.

    But it was Manet’s frank and undisguised technique – his stark, even crude, contrasts of light and shade – that marked him out as a modernist. Thanks to the memoirs of his childhood and art student friend Antonin Proust, who became an influential arts administrator in the 1880s, we know something of Manet’s disdain for those who treated the roundness of flesh by means of gradations of grey tone; this he considered a “studio confection”, for in reality the eye cannot detect such subtleties.

    We also learn how Manet read Diderot’s Salons of the 1760s and 1770s which even in the mid-19th century were still considered exemplary art criticism. But he disagreed with the encyclopédiste’s advice to the portraitist to avoid too closely recording the latest fashion for fear of looking out of date a few years later. No, Manet declared, “one must be of one’s time, record what one sees.”

  • Edouard Manet, Portrait of M. Antonin Proust

    Edouard Manet, Portrait of M. Antonin Proust, 1880.

    Oil on canvas. 95.9 x 129.5 cm. Lent by the Toledo Museum of Art; Gift of Edward Drummond Libbey. Photo Photography Incorporated, Toledo.

  • One of the best places to observe Manet’s technique in action is in the way he dealt with contemporary fashion. Mindful, perhaps, of Titian’s claim that the true painter showed himself in his ability to handle blacks, from the outset of his career Manet seemed bent on demonstrating his mastery of black and white. For this stark preference he had the art-historical precedent of Frans Hals and Diego Velázquez, in whose honour he made pilgrimages to Holland and Spain.

    Frequently Manet shows his men in black attire – even tackling black on black in his Portrait of Zacharie Astruc (1866) and Emile Zola (1868), the latter a portrait in homage to the critic who valiantly defended him. He catches various textures to perfection, from the pitch-black velvet of Rouvière’s stage doublet in The Tragic Actor (Rouvière’s Hamlet) of 1865, to the gleam on the silk of Proust’s top hat in Portrait of M. Antonin Proust, of 1880.

    By contrast, expanses of white abound in a series of female portraits from around 1870. Mlle Clauss wears a white muslin frock in Portrait of Fanny Clauss (Study for the Balcony) of 1868-69, as does the woman painted seated on the grass with her husband and baby in The Garden (1870) whose identity is here proposed as Léontine de Nittis, wife of the painter Giuseppe de Nittis. But the black/white divide was a case of observing the fashions of the day, not consciously gendered on Manet’s part. In any event, by 1872 Berthe Morisot is portrayed in black in Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets and in The Amazon, (c.1882) a female equestrian is fetchingly silhouetted in her tight-fitting black riding habit and gleaming top hat.

    Edmond Duranty, reviewing in Paris-Journal the Salon of 1870, where Manet was showing a portrait of his talented pupil Eva Gonzalès (1870), commented on his extraordinary economy of means where fabrics were concerned: “Where others… differentiate fastidiously between tulle and muslin, silk and crêpe, he passes swiftly through the draper’s shop, looks at the effect a fabric produces and renders it with a simple, bold and lively colour. He scrunches up his folds instead of following and enumerating them”.

    This was where Manet stood head and shoulders above such fashion-conscious contemporaries as Auguste Toulmouche, James Tissot or Alfred Stevens: he conveyed the essence of silk and satin, the bloom of velvet, the laciness of half-gloves and design of jewellery, without labouring the superficial details.

    Portraits were often paired with subject pictures as Manet’s Salon submissions. While they cannot stand for his whole oeuvre, they offer a strand of vital continuity, unquestionably bringing us closer to the man and his competitive, gossipy and glamorous world. Moreover they give us an insight into the Paris of Manet’s time, seen from an haut bourgeois perspective perhaps, but one whose painterly verve remains fresh and compelling.

  • Manet: Portraying Life, Main Galleries, Royal Academy of Arts, 26 Jan–14 April 2013. Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London with the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio. Sponsored by BNY Mellon, Partner of the Royal Academy of Arts.

    Belinda Thomson is Honorary Professor of Art History at Edinburgh University.

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