09 April 2013

Manet, portraits and the good life in Paris

Artist Edouard Manet (1832-83) has been well analysed in the last decade. In 2003, Madrid’s Prado focused on the artist's relationship to his art predecessors and in 2011, Paris’ Musee d'Orsay located him among his contemporaries. Now an exhibition called Manet: Portraying Life is focusing on the portraits he painted. This exhibit­ion was organised by the Royal Academy of Arts Burlington House London, in collaborat­ion with the Toledo Museum of Art Ohio. The show wowed them in Toledo!

Although he lived only until 51, the Impressionists' leader in Paris created many paintings in general, and portraits in particular. Manet painted his family, friends and many of the famous personalities in French art and literature. 50+ of these works have been collected from all around the world, so now I have to ask why do we know so much about his images of modern city life but not much about his portraits. 

Manet, Portrait of Zola, 1868
147 x 114 cm
Musee d'Orsay

Two critiques of the exhibition have been useful. Richard Dorment of the Telegraph  noted that Manet placed portraits of real people against settings fab­ric­ated in his studio. Thus the line between what should have been seen as a true portrait and what was best understood as a genre painting was not always clear. This shifting ground between portrait­ure and genre went right to the heart of Manet’s modernity. In some pictures Manet used portraits in the way theatre directors used act­ors. He added all the ingred­ients of a boulevard farce about money, sex and modern life, seen through the eyes of the quintessential flâneur.

But Richard, even Manet's quest for modernity was ambivalent! On one hand he was a risk-taker in his art and often found himself excluded from the official Salon by art experts in the early years. On the other hand, his very large painting Le Dejeurner sur l'herbe 1863 looked as if it came straight from Renaissance Italy a la The Pastoral Concert c1510 by Giorgione or Titian. Could an artist be backward looking and modernist at the same time?

Adrian Searl of the Guardian believed almost all of Manet’s oeuvre was portraiture, whatever genre he was painting. This was most obvious in Music in the Tuileries Gardens 1862, which is displayed in a room on its own. Visitors can easily see all the tiny portraits embedded in this small outdoor scene, a snap shot of leisure and pleasure in Paris.

The London exhibition opened with a room devoted to the artist and his family. In one, his wife played the piano; in another there was an impressionist portrait of his wife with a cat on her lap. Berthe Morisot, the artist who married Manet’s brother, was painted with a Bouquet of Violets in 1872. Searl’s point was that Manet painted from life, so everyone who appeared was a kind of portrait.

Manet really was the organising father of impressionism! He and his wife welcomed the artistic and literary personalities into their home for a salon every week. And friends often dropped into Manet in his studio or joined him at a table in his favourite cafes. But he was rarely a true impressionist in his art, as Monet and Pissarro were.

Manet, Portrait of Antonin Proust, 1880
130 x 96 cm
Toledo Museum of Art,

The catalogue is important because many people won’t be able to get to London before the exhibition abruptly closes next week (14th April)!!! As a lasting piece of literature, the catalogue explores Manet's portraiture and reviews his growth over his career. 

Of all the works described and explained in the catalogue, I particularly loved two. Firstly the portrait of Émile Zola - partially because Manet developed a modern approach to this genre, but also because Zola was a very fine thinker and writer. Secondly the portrait of Antonin Proust, a childhood friend of Manet who went on to become a journalist, politician and, importantly, the Minister for Culture. This gorgeous portrait reminds me of the 1867 portrait painted by Henri Fantin-Latour of Manet himself. The top hat, gloves and cane represented a debonair man about town.

The first in a new series of cinematic art exhibitions from museums around the world, called Exhibition Screen, is about to start. The Royal Academy’s exhibition, Manet: Portraying Life, will be captured for cinema screens worldwide and shown in Palace Cinemas in Australia on the 27th and 28th April 2013. Manet lovers in other countries should check Exhibition Screen for their own dates.


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, It is interesting to consider the differences in technique, message, etc. between genres in an artist's work--the same holds true for writers, for example between novels and short stories.

Manet's work provides one of those links between disparate fields--in this case to the baritone/composer Jean Baptiste Faure (composer of "Les Rameaux"), who owned Le dejeuner sur l"herbe, sat for portraits by Manet, and according to Wikipedia, owned 62 of Manet's paintings.
--Roa to Parnassus

Hels said...


although I wouldn't have known Faure myself, the point you make about links between disparate fields is a good one.

An avid collector of impressionist art, Faure owned dozens of Manet painting, plus works by Monet, Degas, Sisley and Pissarro. Manet enjoyed a close friendship with composer Emmanuel Chabrier who in turn owned many Manet paintings. Manet loved the writer Émile Zola, poet-critic Stéphane Mallarmé and writer Charles Baudelaire.

Zola and Cézanne were very close friends. Victor Hugo was friends with the famous musicians then, including Berlioz and Liszt. Georges Bizet was close to Jacques Offenbach. Sarah Bernhardt was very close to Alexandre Dumas, photographer Félix Nadar, Alphonse Mucha and René Lalique.

Paris must have been a hotbed of intellectual and creative activity.

Mandy Southgate said...

I have an embarrassing confession to make - I never truly appreciated the difference between Monet and Manet before. Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew they weren't the same person but I don't think I cottoned on that there were two of them. Anyway, I've Googled and researched and I get it now! I like Monet a lot but I think I love Manet's portraits.

Hels said...


Nod. I never muddle Manet and Monet, because apart from the names, they have very little art in common. However I blush every time we look at Dutch still life and genre paintings from the 17th century. Rembrandt, Vermeer and Hals stand out but the others often merge :(

So I keep good notes!

Mandy Southgate said...

Sometimes I think it's only when you visit a retrospective and get a real feel for an artists's lifetime work that they'll truly stand out in your mind. That happened for me with Francis Bacon. On the other hand, Dali was one of my first loves and his art will always stand out for me.

Hels said...



The National Gallery of Victoria lets us know of any big retrospective that they intend to mount, a year before the event. That way, I can get the students to spend as much time as they need looking at the paintings, _before_ we analyse the history, techniques and themes in class.

Mandy Southgate said...

That is such a good idea. That way, you can plan your courses accordingly.

Alberti's Window said...

Wonderful post and discussion of the exhibition!

I think you have raised an interesting point about whether an artist can be backward looking and modernist at the same time. This reminds me of Griselda Pollock's "formula" (or "gambits") for avant-gardism. Pollock writes that artists need to have elements of reference, deference and difference. For example, artists need to reference the artistic world (to show their familiarity with artistic concepts and conventions), but then establish how they are different from these concepts and conventions.

I think that Manet is both "referencing" artistic tradition with some Renaissance compositional and stylistic elements, but establishing himself as "different" through modern subject matter and a rejection of illusionism.

Hels said...

Alberti's Window

Reference, deference and difference... neat concepts! It seems to me that someone like Manet would be perfectly happy to acknowledge his debt to artists of the past. And it would not take away from his contributions to the future of art.

There must be other artists, on the other hand, who saw themselves as having no debt to artists of the past. Let me think more about this... many thanks.