Exposition au musée

Manet / Degas

From March 28th to July 23rd, 2023
Edgar Degas (18341917)
Jeune femme à l’Ibis, 185758
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, EtatsUnis
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art

To discuss Manet (1832-1883) and Degas (1834-1917) together means trying to understand one from the other, examining their differences and similarities, and sometimes their divergences. There are many analogies between these key figures in the New Painting of the 1860-1880s, from their subjects to their stylistic choices, from the places where they exhibited to those where they crossed paths, from the dealers to the collectors around whom their individual careers were based. Their biographies share other common threads, from their experience of the 1870-1871 war to the Nouvelle Athènes, the café in Place Pigalle with the gift of stimulating discussions and calming tensions. Indeed, there were clashes and disputes. Manet refused to join Degas in the impressionist circle, by career choice. And Degas, while he believed in the power of the group, was equally careful not to paint like Monet. By bringing Manet and Degas back into the light of their contrasts, this exhibition encourages a new look at the complicity and enduring rivalry of two singular creative forces, unique in many respects.

The enigma of a relationship

© Musée d’Orsay / Sophie Crépy

A great deal of mystery surrounds the relationship between Manet and Degas. Although they met regularly and moved in the same circles, we cannot date their first meeting and hardly any correspondence between them remains. Their contemporaries and biographers are the main sources of information about their relationship, which was a mixture of admiration and irritation, with the writer George Moore describing it as a 'friendship (...) shaken by an inevitable rivalry'. There is a striking asymmetry in their work: there are no known representations of Degas by Manet, while Degas painted many portraits of Manet. Among them was a painting showing him listening to his wife at the piano. Dissatisfied with the painting he was given, Manet is said to have cut away the part of the canvas that featured his wife. This gesture, of great symbolic violence, is said to be the cause of one of the most infamous rifts between the two artists.

A comfortable upbringing

© Sophie Crépy

Born in Paris at the start of the July Monarchy (1830-1848), Manet and Degas were the eldest sons of wealthy bourgeois families. Manet's father was a senior civil servant in the Ministry of Justice, his mother a diplomat's daughter, goddaughter of the King of Sweden. Degas' family belonged to the world of business and finance. Having attended schools of good reputation, Manet and Degas both abandoned their studies in law, preordained by their background, to follow their artistic vocation. Although this decision was not without difficulties for Manet, who was forced to take the competitive exam for the Naval Academy, failing it twice, Degas' father seems to have upheld only slight opposition to his son's choice. Manet and Degas each then studied with recognised painters away from the École des Beaux-Arts, a potential sign of an early desire for independence.

Copying, creating, studying

© Sophie Crépy

Myth or reality, the first meeting between Manet and Degas is said to have taken place in the Louvre Museum in the early 1860s in front of a painting by Velázquez of which Degas was making an engraved copy. Both were accustomed to visiting the museum with their families from an early age. During their formative years, their apprenticeship was partly based on copying the Old Masters in the Louvre or in the Print Room of the Imperial Library. Their social and family background also offered them the opportunity to travel and further enrich their artistic education and culture. Both artists travelled to Italy several times in the 1850s, where they discovered the masterpieces in the museums and the frescoes adorning the monuments. In terms of contemporary masters, it was Ingres and Delacroix whom they admired. Beyond mere imitation, their references to the art of the past ranged from quotation to homage, or even pastiche.

Beyond portraiture

© Sophie Crépy

Very much in vogue during the Second Empire (1852-1870), the portrait occupied an important place in the early work of Manet and Degas. Unconcerned with obtaining lucrative commissions, their subjects were primarily family and friends, although they also sent portraits of public figures to the Salons, confirming their links with certain social or artistic circles. Manet liked to treat his models with a certain majesty: they took centre stage, often in poses inherited from the old masters, and their presence was magnified by the bright colours of their clothes or the accessories surrounding them. Degas' palette is more muted. His principal motivation was to capture 'people in familiar and typical attitudes', and he was equally concerned with the expressive power of bodies as he was with faces.

The Salon and challenging genres

© Sophie Crépy

No emerging artist could avoid the Salon in the 1860s, and the same was true for Manet and Degas. Housed in the former Palais de l'Industrie, an imposing remnant of the 1855 Universal Exhibition, the Salon became an annual event in 1863 while its jury became increasingly liberal. Inherited from the Ancien Régime, the event brought together thousands of paintings, sculptures and works on paper. It could attract nearly 500,000 visitors and the attention of major newspapers and collectors. Until the full development of art galleries, the Salon was the main forum for exhibition for working artists in France. It was at the Salon that state patronage manifested itself through purchases, awards and encouragement. Manet exhibited there from 1861, Degas in 1865, on an unequal footing, as the former better integrated contemporary expectations than the latter.

The Morisot Circle

© Sophie Crépy

The salon that Berthe Morisot's parents opened to artists, musicians and writers during the Second Empire was a hotbed of modernity. Women and men talked about art and politics with equal standing. Aesthetic disagreements took second place to the pleasure of discussing them. Berthe and her sister Edma, schooled in painting and with a family studio, made their debut at the Salon in 1864. But it was her association with Fantin-Latour, and later with Manet and Degas, that pushed Berthe to take the plunge and embark on a real career as an artist in the face of social constraints of the time. Manet gained stature in this circle from 1868-1869, producing numerous portraits of Berthe Morisot. They are all incarnations of an elegant and singular Parisian woman, an accomplice and advocate of the New Painting. Moreover, unlike Manet, whose brother she married in 1874, Berthe became a full member of the impressionist circle that year.

At the races

© Sophie Crépy

The rise of horse racing, which had arrived from England at the end of the 18th century, was ideally suited to the aspirations of Parisian modernity in the 1860s. With its social glamour, financial attraction, sporting competition and the thrill of speed, its advantages as a subject are not in any doubt. Degas stands out by capturing a different temporality. Rather than the cavalcade, he favours the moment before the start, the psychology of the jockeys, the subtle choreography of the mounts champing at the bit. Manet, on the other hand, is all gallop, visual explosion and accelerated time.


© Sophie Crépy

There is an amusing back-and-forth when it comes to impressionism: after the war of 1870-1871, Manet kept his distance from the dissident movement, though his paintings were complementary. Conversely, Degas never displayed his contempt for an overly sensitive approach to reality more than he did during those same years, which saw him take the lead in the group. But Degas and Manet did not refute the push for a certain 'open-air landscaping' based on a unity of motif and the mobility of perception. They seized upon it quite rapidly, with audacity, and used it to further their careers, as the commercial demand in London and Paris for seascapes and bathing scenes could not be ignored. To quote Manet himself, 'to make one's impression' seemed to be a necessity. However, like Degas, he practised a distinctive form of impressionism.

Crossed networks

© Sophie Crépy

A learned and literate painter, Manet knew the greatest writers of his time, sometimes closely, and associated them with his work through portraiture and shared inspiration. His debt to Baudelaire, Zola, Astruc and Mallarmé, among others, left many traces in his painting and his life. The more artists tried to free themselves from institutions, the more they colluded with the intermediaries of the market and the press. The publicity sought by Manet's subjects was vital. Did he not intend to exhibit at the Salon until his death, under all regimes and all juries? Degas did not show off his literary tastes and connections until the 1870s. It was then that he painted and exhibited, in gratitude, his sharp and biting portraits of the acerbic art critics Edmond Duranty and Diego Martelli. His depictions of café fauna and imperious bohemians, such as the painter-engraver Marcellin Desboutins or the Irish writer George Moore, also echo Manet.


© Sophie Crépy

Manet and Degas were very attached to their native city. A close correspondence between the two artists can be found in their portraits of Parisian women in familiar surroundings, in which the subjects and approach echo the naturalist novels of the Goncourt brothers and Émile Zola. Manet and Degas gave rise to a 'New Painting', called for by the novelist and art critic Louis-Edmond Duranty, in which the depiction of women of different social standings evoking modern life played a decisive role. They were interested in similar subjects and sought to infuse their works, posed and painted in the studio, with the spontaneity of scenes of everyday life.


© Sophie Crépy

Among the personality traits where Manet and Degas diverge is in their relationships with women. Described as a seducer, Manet was, in the opinion of his contemporaries, never more comfortable than in female company. Equally proverbial is the reserve attributed to Degas, whose life 'was always mysterious from the sentimental point of view'. He was, by his own admission, 'not one for parties'. These differences in temperament are partly reflected in their art: while Manet depicts women with a pose and gaze that convey a certain assurance, the relationships between men and women almost always appear troubled or unbalanced in Degas' works. His portrayal of the female nude has earned him a reputation as a misogynist artist. The reality is far more complex, and in his writings we can perceive the sensitivity of a man preoccupied with his heart and dreaming of marital bliss.

The nude

© Sophie Crépy

Since the Renaissance and its glorification of Greco-Roman heritage, the nude has played a central role in artistic education dedicated to capturing the most harmonious aspects of nature. This so-called 'classical' theory turns the human body into an image of perfection. By dissociating it from nudity and therefore from the sexual body, and by establishing sculpture as a model for painting, an aesthetic ideal was established and perpetuated through imitation. To challenge this discipline was to overturn an entire system of values. Romantics, such as Delacroix, and Realists, such as Courbet, were already working towards this in the 19th century, before photography and the New Painting dismissed the canons of beauty in favour of bodily reality. From Manet's Olympia to Degas' Baigneuses, female nudity, far from being objective, displays a truth that is as engaging as it is iconoclastic.

From one war to another

© Sophie Crépy

As a committed republican, Manet regularly exhibited works based on events that affected or outraged him as a citizen. He sought to strike a chord with public opinion, while Degas always left current events out of his public work. Their relationship began as the American continent was marked by the American Civil War (1861-1865) and the execution of Emperor Maximilian in Mexico (1867), subjects that Manet depicted. These events directly affected Degas' maternal family, who made their living from the cotton trade in New Orleans. In July 1870, France declared war on Prussia. The two painters were conscripted into the National Guard and remained in Paris to defend the city during its siege. They endured the long weeks of waiting, cold and deprivation and distinguished themselves from the many artists who had fled the country. In 1872, Degas visited his family in New Orleans for the first time. He mentioned Manet several times during his stay, declaring that he 'would see much beauty here'. He discovered a society still marked by the slave system.