Born in Paris in 1832, son of a prosperous family Edouard Manet studied classics and soon developed a passion for drawing. However, he was forced to undertake a career as a navy officer to escape the legal career forced on him by his father. Having failed the officers’ examination, upon his return from a trip to Rio de Janeiro Edouard managed to convince his father to let him cultivate his artistic ambitions. So, in 1850 he began frequenting the studio of the academic painter, Thomas Couture where he would remain until 1856. Conflicts led to a definitive break in 1858, caused by Couture’s negative opinion of the Absinthe Drinker. Those years were actually Manet’s real artistic education: he was convinced that the renewal of painting must start from a knowledge of traditions. In 1853 he went to Italy to study the masterpieces in Florence, and in 1856 he traveled through Holland, Austria and Germany. He began to become acquainted with the Parisian artistic milieus and met Fantin-Latour, Degas and the poet Baudelaire who became his great friend and supporter. In 1860 he made the acquaintance of Berthe Morisot, a talented young female painter who was to be his pupil and model. He also began to exhibit his early works at the Salons, such as The Guitar Player (1861). He painted many pictures of Spanish subjects, evidence of his passion for Spanish painting from which he drew his compositional and formal inspiration, especially Velázquez and Goya. 1863 was the year of the famous Déjeuner sul l’herbe – Luncheon on the Grass. The painting was rejected by the Salon and shown at the polemic Salon des Refusés and created a great scandal. Baudelaire took up Manet’s defense but the artist had already embarked on a difficult period becoming the object of rancorous polemics on the part of the “official” critical environments (the Académie and the Salon). However, this moment also marked by the beginning of modern painting in which Manet was to be a firm believer, starting from the Déjeuner to Olympia (1863, shown at the Salon in 1865), works that redeveloped classical themes in a modern context, with daring formal and thematic contrasts that would provoke fierce reactions. In 1865 Manet took a trip to Spain, and the following year the Salon rejected two of his works: The Tragic Actor and The Fifer. The latter was based on two-dimensional shapes defined by the contours typical of Japanese art that was a constant reference for Manet. In 1867 his works were excluded from the Universal Exposition, but they were openly defended by the writer Emile Zola who became his friend and avid supporter, in a way replacing Baudelaire who had died that year. In 1868 his Portrait of Emile Zola sealed their friendship. During the ‘seventies, when he also participated in the political events of the Commune born from the collapse of the Second Empire Manet painted other portraits of intellectuals, including the outstanding small canvas of the poet Stéphane Mallarmé. Baudelaire, Zola and Mallarmé had all defended and understood his painting, maintaining that it was capable of portraying the realities of contemporary life as well as being an expression of a profound renewal of art. In any case, even though Manet had paved the way and participated in the discussions at the Café Guerboi and at the Nouvelle Athènes, he did not take part in the first Impressionist exhibition at the Nadar gallery in 1874 because he did not identify with that movement. Until the end he would produce masterpieces of free and daring structure, and remained tied to the figure and to pure, natural colors. He was to create splendid paintings such as Luncheon in the Studio (1868), Berthe Morisot with a Fan (1872), Gare St. Lazare (1872-1873), Nana (1877) and the beautiful Bar at the Folies-Bergère, his last painting of contemporary life. Manet died in Paris on 30 April 1883.
The Street Singer
In this splendid painting, Manet had Victorine-Louise Meurent – who would be his favorite model until 1875 – pose for the first time. The setting is outside the entrance to a small cabaret; she seems to be taken by surprise as she is eating cherries. Her expression is sweetly melancholy, and the body is light and air, but according to Richardson the clean outlines of the shapes would be the first manifestation of the artist’s interest in Japanese painting. Like all of Manet’s paintings from the period, this one too, would be rejected by the critics who were disoriented by the subject, especially in 1863 when the Street Singer was shown at the Martinet gallery along with thirteen other canvases. The reaction was almost unanimously negative and outraged, and had repercussions on his submissions to the Salon of that year: in fact all of Manet’s paintings were rejected (along with those by Courbet, Doré and many others). Manet and Gustave Doré sent a petition to the Ministry of Fine Arts and obtained permission from the Emperor Napoleon III to establish the Salon des Refusés (the rejects), with about one thousand two hundred works. And although it was considered a good opportunity for protest against the official culture, it further exposed him to the ridicule and unrestrained judgments of the critics.
In 1853 during a trip to Italy Manet had copied Titian’s Venus of Urbino which was clearly one of the forerunners of this painting along with the Naked Maja by Goya. The model is Victorine Meurent, whom the artist painted several times, while the title was “assigned” by Zacharie Astruc, painter and friend of Manet, fifteen months after the painting was completed. The presentation of Olympia at the 1865 Salon raised such a furor that it made news. The painting was violently attacked by visitors to the exhibition, to the point that they manifested their intention to destroy it. Therefore, it was hung as high as possible and two guards were posted near it. The sexual carnality of the nude surrounded by fashionable accessories and objects was certainly a major break with convention. Each detail of the painting went against the ideas and ethics of the era notwithstanding some traditional elements such as the formal balance, the purity of the lines and the brilliant sequences of light tones. Actually, what Manet was fighting against was the ideal and theatrical sphere that encircled the era’s art, along with its academic and bourgeois esthetic canons. The words of Paul Valery (1932) are both emblematic and eloquent: “Olympia shocks, releases a sacred horror, asserts herself and she triumphs. It is a scandal, an idol; the power and public presence of a sordid secret of society. Her head is empty: a black velvet ribbon separates it from the essence of her being. The purity of a perfect line encloses the Impure par excellence, she whose role demands the tranquil and frank ignorance of all modesty.“
Luncheon on the Grass
Originally, the famous Luncheon on the Grass was entitled Le Bain [The Bath], since in the first rendering the subject was to have been Susanna at her Bath a rather free variation of Rembrandt’s painting in The Hague. It was only later, in August 1862 at Argenteuil, that Manet planned the final version of the painting as he watched women swimming in the Seine. The structure and formal idea are based Giorgione’s Concert Champêtre, and the engraving of The Judgment of Paris by Marcantonio Raimondi after Raphael, even if the landscape is that of the French island of Saint-Ouen. Manet, who wanted to achieve fame with the painting, was well aware of the provocative and almost sacrilegious nature of some elements in the picture. For example, the contrast between the young nude woman next to two men in city clothes reveals a daring choice that embarrassed his contemporaries because it stripped the scene of any historic or mythological connotations, making it current and modern, like a picnic on a riverbank with a strong erotic content. Furthermore, the painting technique makes the subject even more disconcerting because of the lively, realistic rosy flesh tones of the woman who, according to the elderly Eugène Delacroix, “penetrates the eyes like a saw.” The painting was rejected by the judges at the 1863 Salon, and therefore was shown at the first Salon des Refusés that Napoleon III had allowed to exhibit the so-called “rejects.”
The Dead Toreador
Even though it was accepted at the 1864 Salon, The Dead Toreador was ridiculed by the critics. Initially it was not meant to be an independent painting, but was the lower portion of a large canvas entitled The Bullfight which was divided into two parts to become Bullfighting Scene and The Dead Toreador, after the failure at the Salon. The “Journal Amusant” mockingly wrote: “Spanish toys arranged in the manner of Ribera by Sig. Manet y Courbetes y Zurbaran de las Batignolas,” while the writer Edmond About described the painting as “a wooden toreador killed by a mouse,” to highlight the perspective “flaws.” The sources of the composition of this toreador who is stretched out in a narrow horizontal space were traced back to the Dead Orlando attributed to Velasquez which was in the Pourtalès gallery, however, this was denied by Baudelaire in a letter to Thoré-Burger saying that Manet had never seen the Pourtalès gallery. During this period Manet favored Spanish subjects: dancers, musicians, gypsies, toreadors and women in traditional costume inhabited his imagination until the culminating trip to Madrid in 1865. The stretched out body of the toreador, while rather stiff, is finely rendered by the contrasting colors that create a marked effect: the silky black of the clothes with the white shirt and stockings or the cape barely touched with pink against the brown background of the arena.
This 1866 painting, considered one of Manet’s masterpieces was rejected by the Salon that same year along with The Tragic Actor. During a visit to Manet’s studio Emile Zola had seen The Fifer and was positively impressed He commented on the lean, simple appearance: “the simplification created by artist’s clear eye made the canvas an absolutely delicate and innocent piece, delicate to the point of grace and real to the point of harshness.” Perhaps it was the realistic harshness that did not convince the critics along with the fact that the fifer greatly resembled the model Victorine Meurent. The figure is painted on a light background, portrayed in a uniform rendered with a few, very bright colors that highlight the white bandolier and spats and the gold and black trim. The influence of Japanese painting is obvious, based as it is on the flattening of shapes that are defined only by the outlines, while the manner of isolating the figure on a monochrome background recalls Velázquez whose art Manet had studied during a trip to Spain in 1865.
The Execution of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico
As proof of how important the invention of photography was to contemporary painters who considered it a most valid tool for fixing and studying reality, we know that Manet used at least four photographs to paint The execution of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico. On 19 June 1867 Maximilian of Austria, who had been emperor of Mexico for just a short time was executed at Queretaro. Manet, who was very shocked by this brutal event began to transpose the scene, starting from documents published in the newspapers, and also referring to an historical painting that he had seen two years earlier in the Prado, The 3rd of May 1808: The Execution of the Defenders of Madrid, (1814) by Goya. This would be the only painting in which Manet dealt with a civil, contemporary subject, and it was excluded from the exposition at Alma for political reasons. Later, the artist modified the painting, changing the uniforms of the firing squad from Mexican to French. In any case, it is an extraordinary painting characterized by cold tones and a chromatic uniformity that emphasize a real emotional distance from the drama portrayed, even though the faces above the wall remain unforgettable, like Goya’s corridas, as does the seemingly fleshless face of the man hit by the rifle fire. The compositional balance is perfectly cadenced by the symmetrical arrangement of the figures (the executioners and the victims) which almost transforms the historical drama into a plastic drama.
Ritratto di Emile Zola
olio su tela; 146 x 114
Parigi, Musée d’Orsay
Oltre all’amicizia e all’appoggio di Baudelaire, che si era spento nel 1867, Manet poté contare sull’amicizia e sull’ammirazione del giovane scrittore Emile Zola, che allora si stava lanciando con entusiasmo nella carriera giornalistica. Questi, nel maggio 1866, aveva scritto un articolo in difesa dell’opera di Manet e l’anno dopo gli aveva dedicato una monografia biografica e critica elogiandone la modernità (opera che, nel quadro, appare riprodotta sul tavolo a destra, dietro il calamaio). Zola è ritratto nel suo studio, seduto su una poltroncina imbottita, posto di profilo con le gambe accavallate, in una posa del tutto naturale mentre, davanti alla sua scrivania, tiene tra le mani un libro aperto. Lo straordinario volto pallido e delicato emerge per contrasto con il nero della tappezzeria del fondo e della giacca di velluto che indossa. Ma ciò che rende particolarmente interessante e prezioso questo ritratto è la palese derivazione stilistica dalla pittura di Velázquez e dalle pennellate piatte dell’arte giapponese. Questi interessi di Manet vengono testimoniati anche attraverso la presenza di una incisione dai Borrachos (I beoni) di Velázquez e di una stampa di Utamaro, appese alla parete alle spalle di Zola, insieme a una piccola copia dell’Olympia di Manet a cui lo scrittore aveva dedicato parole di grande apprezzamento. Un altro omaggio alla pittura giapponese è rappresentato, inoltre, dal paravento di seta con i rami fioriti, che realmente faceva parte dell’arredamento dello studio dello scrittore francese.
Gare St. Lazare (The Railway Station)
This painting dates from the key years of Impressionism, a movement that Manet never officially joined, but seemed to undergo its attraction in the lightening of the impasto of the colors that permits a more natural relationship between the setting and the figures. These are characterized by spontaneity and changing poses as the train passes through the station. The woman seated on the wall, a portrait of Victorine Meurent, with a puppy sleeping on her lap is indifferent to the arrival of the train, even if she stops reading for a moment. The little girl, seen from the back enthusiastically watching the steam through the fence is a portrait of the painter Hirsch’s daughter. The two contrasting feelings, the melancholy awareness of maturity and the little girl’s lively curiosity are also emphasized by the different tones: a cold, metallic blue for the woman, and lighter, luminous shades of white for the child. The low, horizontal view, set in Hirsch’s garden has an extraordinary power in which the engine, hidden by the cloud of steam becomes a presence-absence, modifying the contours and colors of the surrounding urban landscape. Exhibited at the 1874 Salon the painting was received with hostility, but was defended by Mallarmé who became a friend of the artist from that moment on.
Luncheon in the Studio
While on holiday at Boulogne-sur-Mer, during the summer of 1868, Manet drew a sketch (that has since been lost) for this cannas that he then painted in Paris. The focus of the composition, the realistically rendered youth in the foreground is a portrait of Léon Koella the artist’s natural son, captured in his elegant, stylish suit as he leans against the table where lunch had just been eaten. He seems to be on the edge of the painting’s surface in a suspended, expectant pose that subtly determines the presence of the two other figures. In the shadow of the background sketched in with thick, quick brushstrokes that contrast with the starker foreground are, Auguste Rousselin (artist and pupil of Gleyre and Couture whom Manet had met in the latter’s studio) who is still seated and smoking a pipe, and an unidentified woman, perhaps an improvised model, holding a pitcher of water. The big plant with shiny leaves in the background and the antique helmet and weapons in the foreground are objects that the painter Monginot had loaned to Manet specifically for this painting. The entire composition reveals the influence of Velasquez and Goya, and there are also elements that recall The Bellelli Family by Degas in the unusual arrangement. Shown at the 1869 Salon, the painting was reviewed by Castagnery and Chaumelin.
Portrait of Stéphane Mallarmé
After the beautiful portrait of Emile Zola, during the eighteen-seventies, Edouard Manet painted portraits of other intellectuals such as Antonin Proust, Zacharie Astruc and this one of the poet Stéphane Mallarmé. The artist did not force the poet to pose for long sittings in the studio, he preferred to sketch him as they talked. The result is a spontaneous and anything but formal portrait done with quick, loose brushstrokes with a long, free line that highlights the subject’s natural pose as he is comfortably seated on a flowery sofa. It is likely that the final effect even surprised the artist – so much so that he complained about not having had a bigger canvas: for this reason Manet had it enlarged by five centimeters that he covered by painting the floral motif on the Japanese wallpaper. The artist and poet had met two years earlier when they worked together on the French edition of Edgar Allen Poe’s poem The Raven, translated by Mallarmé and illustrated by Manet. Mallarmé had often defended Manet’s art and his “struggle to translate into art forms those truths of nature which are eternal, but to the eyes of the masses are unusual and new.”
Considered too indecent a subject, this painting was rejected by the judges at the 1877 Salon and the painting was shown at the Girou gallery on Boulevard des Capucines. The public was so scandalized that the police were summoned. The scene was certainly a provocation for the era’s bourgeois propriety, since the woman’s revealing clothing, the presence of the man and the furnishings make it rather clear that it is an amorous encounter. We know that the young model was the prostitute and soubrette Henriette Hauser who posed in Manet’s studio exactly when Emile Zola’s novel L’Assommoir was being serialized in Republique des Lettres, between July 1876 and January 1877. According to many critics, Manet drew his inspiration for this portrait form Nana a character in Zola’s naturalistic novel, a gallery of worldliness, high class harlots and cancan girls dancing to Offenbach’s music. The setting where the vain Nana naughtily poses in front of the elegantly dressed man is steeped in a fresh morning light that strikes her face, turned towards the painter, and the beautiful white tulle undergarments to make them the focus of attention. The quick, confident brushstrokes and the affected, domestic setting recall eighteenth century paintings, and specifically works by Boucher.
A Bar at the Folies-Bergère
This is the last, big painting that Manet would dedicate to the celebration of contemporary life. Painted in 1881 it was presented at the 1882 Salon and met with great critical acclaim, perhaps because of its freshness and inventive freedom. It was found in the artist’s studio in 1883 (the year of his death) and was purchased by the musician Emmanuel Chabrier, intimate friend of Manet who was with him when he died. In this extraordinary painting the mysterious Suzon, one of the two waitresses at the bar is portrayed in the center of the room in an isolated, enigmatic position, detached from the background and relatively close to the observer. The big mirror behind her reflects the lively bustle of the café-concert, the big chandelier and, in the upper left, the legs of the trapeze artiste who seems to be ignored by everyone. The woman’s back is reflected at an angle, more tilted than it seems from the front to allow us to perceive the client with the black top hap. As in other paintings, Manet bases the composition on contrasts: between horizontal and vertical lines, between blacks and whites that stand out against the dominant yellow-blue tone and mainly between the artificial cheer of the rooms and the girl’s melancholy solitude. In the foreground, on the counter, a vase of roses, the bowl with tangerines and the colored, differently shaped bottles create one of the finest still-lifes ever painted. And, on the label of the bottle on the far left we read: “Manet 1882.”