Manet, the Man who Invented Modernity
Modernity is indeed there
In a way, the exhibition came about through one painting, Homage to Delacroix that Fantin-Latour, one year after the great master's death, showed at the Salon in 1864. In it, we can see Manet, whose Luncheon on the Grass, had been rejected by the Salon in 1863, in good company, standing between Champfleury and Baudelaire: on the one hand, Courbet's man; on the other, Delacroix's champion. Was Manet, therefore, the painter who brought Realism and Romanticism together?
Fantin-Latour's appealing hypothesis only needed to be considered in more depth and supported. This is what the nine sections of this exhibition propose to do by rescuing Manet from the unsound judgment of later generations. We can no longer just present Manet as the reputed father of Impressionism or of pure painting, not to mention abstract art.
Manet's dazzling success in the early1860s, his continued evolution in the following two decades - from the militant Hispanism of his early work to the unorthodox Naturalism of the later ones -, his determination to revolutionise history painting in the public space where it was meaningful, these are perspectives better suited to Manet's "Modern" genius, for Modernity is indeed there.
The Choice of Couture
In order to emphasise Manet's radical approach even more, his first biographers – Zola in 1867 - cut him off from his roots. It was assumed that he had not retained anything from his six years of training (late 1849 to early 1856) in Thomas Couture's studio. It was after he failed the entrance exam for the Naval College that Manet, son of a senior civil servant, enrolled at the studio of the painter of Romans of the Decadence (Paris, Musée d'Orsay).
Couture was not then considered to be just another Academic painter, but rather the heir to Rubens and Ribera, as well as to Gros and Géricault, in a more academic way...
This friend of Michelet was virtually the official artist of the Second Republic. When Manet joined him, Couture was striving to complete an enormous patriotic scene, The Enrolment of the Volunteers of 1792 (around 1848, Beauvais, Musée Départemental de l'Oise), animated by a realistic vitality that is more evident in the preparatory drawings.
Manet also appreciated both the all-encompassing sincerity of the portraitist and the sentimentality of his dreamy or rebellious adolescent figures. But his copies of Delacroix and his Boy with a Sword (1861, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art), leaning towards Velazquez's Spain, revealed other ambitions.
The Baudelaire Moment
We do not know when the "strong affinity" appeared that brought Manet and Baudelaire together, a friendship that was to last until the death of the author of the Flowers of Evil in 1867.
Since his first articles on the Salon and its dispiriting, unvarying routine, Baudelaire had been trying to convert Romanticism into Modernity - he would be for the visual arts what Balzac had been for the novel.
It matters little in the end that Baudelaire never openly acknowledged Manet as "the painter of modern life", the expression he applied in 1863 to the brilliant press illustrator Constantin Guys.
When Victorine Meurent, Manet's favourite model, suddenly appeared in his pictures, as a singer fallen on hard times, The Street Singer (1862, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts) or as a shameless nude, Olympia and Luncheon on the Grass (1863, Musée d'Orsay), Manet found a way of painting in the present moment, of combining this new prosaicism of subject with the spontaneity of photography and the depth of classical painting...
This was enough to provoke accusations of blasphemy and of insult to every tradition. However Manet, who knew all the great works of the Louvre like the back of his hand, laid claim to the legacy of the great masters, and chose fashionable subjects, from Spanish dancers to intimate boudoir scenes.
A Suspect Catholicism?
In 1864, a year after the Salon des Refusés, there was another shock: Manet exhibited his Dead Christ with Angels (New York, Metropopolitan Museum of Art) and went against all the traditional practices of religious painting. He took his inspiration from Italy (Fra Angelico, Andrea del Sarto) and Spain (Greco, Velázquez, Goya), following the example of his friend and rival Legros.
Baudelaire, a Catholic like them, supported their efforts in the more controlled genre of the female nude. In 1859, when speaking of Delacroix, the poet had written: "religion, being the highest fiction of the human spirit [...], requires the most vigorous imagination and the greatest effort from those who devote themselves to the expression of its actions and its sentiments".
Manet, a friend of Abbot Hurel, took up this challenge: to reinvent, not revive, sacred art. While sharing Michelet's anticlericalism, he was nonetheless respectful of the inviolable rights of individual faith and the teaching of the gospels that he interpreted in a forceful yet subtle way.
From the Prado to the Alma
After the failure at the 1865 Salon of Jesus mocked by Soldiers (Chicago, Art Institute) and of Olympia, Manet went to Spain for the first time. His main aim was to see the forty Velazquez paintings in the Prado.
His direct encounter with the masters of the Golden Age, including El Greco and Goya, not to mention the Italian collections in Madrid, would affect him in a number of ways. In 1866, when The Fife Player (1866, Musée d'Orsay) was rejected by the Salon jury, Zola noted the astonishing blend of sobriety and energy emanating from the paintings that Manet had produced on his return from Spain.
With its harshness and dramatic tension, Dead Matador (around 1864, Washington, National Gallery of Art) reached new heights. It was, moreover, a fragment of a bullfighting scene that Manet had cut up in 1865.
Whether it was dissatisfaction or a desire to intensify the visual power of the paintings, this was a clever choice in view of the continual criticism from the press. Instead of constructing, as expected, Manet deconstructs and redefines the unity of perception in a different way.
The Promises of a Face
Baudelaire commented on the interplay of desire and frustration running through the series of portraits of Berthe Morisot that started at the 1869 Salon with The Balcony (Musée d'Orsay).
The young woman, who did not fit well into her upper class background, was also a painter and future active member of the "Impressionist group".
She would say of this first painting: "His paintings, as always, create the impression of wild fruit, slightly unripe even. I really like them."
The Balcony is disturbing, as much for its suspension in space and its colour contrasts as for the mystery and obstinate silence of the three protagonists who ignore each other, looking outwards, disillusioned and fatalistic.
Alongside Berthe Morisot, Manet represented the violinist Fanny Claus and landscape artist Antoine Guillemet. Until 1874, when she married one of his brothers, the painter flirted with using different moods and settings to transform her image.
The Trap of Impressionism
In May 1874, Manet made a firm resolution to distance himself from the first exhibition of those artists that a certain section of the press sneeringly accused of "impressionism"... At that time, however, he was considered their "leader", a label that some of his friends would seize on to give him greater authority.
Mallarmé, whom the painter had got to know well in 1873, was one of these. The fact remains that Manet's artistic idiom had moved on after the end of the Franco-Prussian war and the Commune, two events that closely affected him.
He lightened his palette and his style became more vibrant. It would be wrong to put this down purely to the influence of his friends Monet and Renoir. This chromatic and formal liberation had revealed itself in the mid 1860s in his seascapes, his most sober, and closest to Whistler. Rather than adopting the emerging aesthetic, Manet adapted it for his own purposes, for which the Salon remained the ideal place.
1879 – A Turning Point
The change of direction was initially political after the election of Jules Grévy. The atmosphere of the Salon quickly altered too.
These new circumstances accelerated Manet's development, in form and content. At Père Lathuille's (Tournai, Musée des Beaux-Art), which delighted Huysmans at the 1880 Salon, avoided the rather obvious moralising of Zola novels that Manet very much enjoyed. However he had never aspired to judge contemporary morals from above. But he did, however, cultivate a relationship with the friends of the publisher Charpentier, whose success in publishing Zola had provided the financial means to launch La Vie moderne.
This was the name of an illustrated review and a gallery, both open to the new painting of Renoir, Monet and Manet himself. In April 1880, Manet exhibited around twenty paintings and pastels.
As well as being a summary, it was, as the Portrait of Constantin Guys (1879, private collection) indicates, a kind of small-scale manifesto.
The numerous scenes of brasseries and music halls impressed his contemporaries, as did the fashionably dressed society women and demi-mondaines: Manet revealed himself here "in a completely new light - a painter of elegant women" (Philippe Burty).
Less is more
Although quite numerous, a fifth of his entire oeuvre, Manet did not consider his still lifes in the way we do today. Flexible but consistent categories governed his work: primacy of the senses, impact on the imagination and the compositional imperative. His best still lifes held a modest position in this hierarchy.
Their raison d'être was first and foremost a practical one: while his figures did not sell, he increased the images of flowers, fruits and "set tables".
More than just decorative virtuosity, a direct homage to the old masters or the delightful intrusion of the accidental, it is their dramatic quality that saves them from banality.
Around 1880, he started to use closer framing and smaller canvases. When stripped down to the minimum, with a flash of brightness on the rich impasted surface, small, insignificant things, which amused the painter, attained an unprecedented expansiveness.
The End of the Story?
Manet was always a history painter, from ambition and from a desire to record the political situation of the time. The first work he presented under his own name, in 1860, was a caricature of Émile Ollivier, published in Diogenes, a liberal, anti-clerical journal run by Ernest Adam.
This friend of the Manet family reminds us that they and their friends opposed the Second Empire.
For Manet then to paint several controversial paintings, including the Battle of the Kearsarge (1865, Philadelphie, Museum of Art) and The Execution of Maximilian (1867, Mannheim, Kuntshalle), came as no surprise.
When the Radicals came to power in 1879, it gave him a final boost.
The establishment of 14 July as France's national day and the amnesty for the Communards prompted him to pay tribute to a "red", which was echoed in December 1880 by Monet's comment: "I saw Manet, in good enough health, very much taken up with a sensational painting for the Salon - Rochefort escaping in a rowing boat on the open sea." (Monet).
Destined for the Salon, the unfinished canvas was both his Barque of Dante (Eugène Delacroix, 1822, Musée du Louvre) and his Raft of the Medusa (Théodore Géricault, 1819, Musée du Louvre).