Manet, “Boating”, 1874, oil on canvas. (Open access image courtesy of Met Museum, 29.100.115).
Happy birthday to Edouard Manet, born on this day in 1832! Manet had a short (he died in 1883) but incredibly important artistic career. I’ll be celebrating that in my post today with some of my favourite pieces by Manet.
Manet was born the eldest son of a well-to-do family: his father was a civil servant. Before becoming an artist, he tried twice to enter Naval College, failing both times despite the fact he even went on a training mission to Rio. In September 1850, alongside his good friend Antonin Proust (who would later become the Minister of Fine Arts), he started his artistic training at the workshop of Thomas Couture.
He was really interested in the work of Old Masters, studying them at the Louvre, and travelled to museums across Europe. He did, however, eschew travelling to Rome (the usual spot for artists-in-training!) for other Italian cities, Belgium, Holland, Germany and Austria.
You can see his interest in the Old Masters in this painting of his from ca.1862-3: it shows his interest in Dutch painting and his travels to various museums. I also love how colourful and vibrant it is.
The composition also probably comes from a fascination with Rubens, which was encouraged in Manet by Delacroix. He supposedly told Manet: “Look at Rubens, draw inspiration from Rubens, copy Rubens. Rubens was God.” (I can kind of concur but also this is the most glowing review!)
The couple in the bottom right are actually Manet and his wife, Suzanne Leenhoff. Leenhoff was a Dutch pianist who was employed by Manet’s father, who would have been highly disapproving of a match between her and his oldest son. Manet and Leenhoff lived together discretely for a couple of years (following him setting up his own painting studio in 1856) before marrying in 1863, the year after Manet’s father passed away.
Ultimately, he was a realist painter and, despite lifelong associations with the Impressionist movement, never once exhibited with them. He was incredibly interested in the scenes of modern life that preoccupied French painters during this period in Paris – and this is one of them.
Manet’s early work was reasonably successful and accepted at the Salon, but it soon became controversial. He often mixed up Old Master subjects with modernity – two of his most famous paintings, “Dejeuner sur l’herbe” (1862-3) and “Olympia” (1865) are perfect examples of this, blending influences from Titian with realities of modern existence.
In fact, when he wasn’t invited to exhibit at the 1867 Exposition Universelle, he set up a huge tent next door and exhibited fifty works. In tandem he also published a catalogue of the exhibition that set out some of his key ideas about art – one of them being an emphasis on exhibiting. Unfortunately for Manet, it was ignored by critics and visitors alike.
Manet has often seen to have been an important innovator, sometimes labelled a father of modernism, but he had few contemporary critics that understood him. One such writer (and friend) was Emile Zola, who defended his art by saying it was about the act of painting and visual experience, placing less emphasis on the subject matter, which was what often riled his critics.
Manet was part of an important circle of artists. He met with them at the Cafe Guerbois, which was on the Avenue de Clichy. He had important relationships with artists such as Degas and Morisot, with whom he had a key professional friendship, and who also married his brother Eugene.
The Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 saw Manet move his family out of Paris, and he entered the National Guard. After this brief interlude, he not only moved his studio, but also his key meeting place from Guerbois to Cafe de la Nouvelle Athenes, in Place Pigalle. His studio also became an important social space, with plenty of his friends and colleagues moving through.
He worked up until his death in 1883, and this was the final portrait he produced of his wife Suzanne Leenhoff. It was painted during the summer of 1880, which they spent at Bellevue.
Manet’s brushstrokes, fascination with lighting and direct experience cemented him as a revolutionary figure in modern painting. Zola wrote of him: “it is a truly charming experience to contemplate this luminous and serious painting which interprets nature with a gentle brutality.”