Édouard Manet is a famous French painter of the second half of the 19th century. Sometimes considered as the father of Impressionism, Manet does not really fit in this category. He chose contemporary subjects, depicting 19th-century Parisian life, just as other impressionists did. Still, while impressionists focused on light and colors, Manet sometimes showed evident attention to details in a realistic manner. Read along to discover more about his life and art in 6 paintings.
1. The Spanish Singer: Édouard Manet’s Spanish Period
The Spanish Singer is the first public success of Édouard Manet. In 1860, he painted the portrait of a man dressed in traditional Spanish clothes and playing the guitar. The painting was accepted in the 1861 Salon in Paris. French writers and poets Charles Baudelaire and Théophile Gautier greatly admired Manet’s painting. So did Eugène Delacroix, who fervently promoted his work. The Spanish Singer is typical of Manet’s Spanish period.
Young Édouard Manet lived in Paris during the 19th century. He discovered art with his uncle, captain Edouard Fournier. The captain invited him and his brother Eugène multiple times to visit the Louvre museum, especially the Spanish Gallery. Manet received an artistic education with Thomas Couture, a famous Parisian academic painter. This academic education served as a base for Manet to find other ways of painting. He was fascinated by the Spanish painters’ realism, preferring it over the antique Italian style of Academic art. Diego Vélasquez and Francisco de Goya greatly influenced Manet’s early work.
Manet traveled to Spain for the first time in 1865. Before that, he had already painted several Spanish subjects, such as bullfighting scenes and characters in costumes. The French painter kept Spanish costumes in his painting studio and probably read Theophile Gaultier’s España: a recollection of his travel memories across the country. He used these costumes and other props to paint The Spanish Singer from a model in his studio. Unlike impressionists who used to paint outdoors, Manet openly acknowledged painting in a studio. Observers spotted that the left-handed guitar player used a guitar for right-handers, exemplifying the small errors that come with studio painting with props.
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2. Music In The Tuileries Gardens
Édouard Manet’s family was part of the wealthy Parisian bourgeoisie; Édouard was a sociable man who enjoyed the company of aristocrats. Manet had a group of close friends who were described as dandy wearing top hats. They met every afternoon in the Tuileries Gardens, in downtown Paris, right next to the Louvre Museum.
The 1862 Music in the Tuileries Gardens painting illustrates these afternoon gatherings perfectly. He depicted the public attending a concert held in the Tuileries Gardens. Many of his friends stand in the crowd, including Zacharie Astruc, Théophile Gautier, and Charles Baudelaire. Manet even represented himself among them, a bearded man standing on the far left-hand side of the painting.
Today considered a model for later impressionist paintings depicting contemporary outdoor life, Music in the Tuileries Gardens did not inspire many praises. Criticisms pointed out the blots of paint that covered the canvas. Even his friend Baudelaire judged it harshly.
3. Le Déjeuner Sur L’Herbe: Scandal At The Salon Des Refusés
Manet painted his masterpiece Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (The Luncheon on the grass), also known as Le Bain (The Bath), in 1862. A year later, the large painting (81.9 × 104.1 in) was presented at the first Salon des Refusés. The painting raised extreme negative reactions from the public.
Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe displays a picnic scene in the woods. A nude woman and two fully-dressed men lunch together, while another woman wearing a light dress bathes in the background. Manet’s painting style distanced further from academism. Yet this is not what shocked the public and the critique. Instead, the fully naked woman at the center of the scene raised strong reactions. Artists used to depict nude bodies, but modestly and recalling mythological scenes. What was considered shocking in Manet’s painting was the woman’s carelessness and the fully-dressed men at her side, a strong sexual connotation.
The French painter used sharp contrasts instead of color gradients and “blots” of paint. Manet ignored the established conventions; the absence of depth of field and the biased perspective, the visible brushstrokes. Despite its innovation, it still recalls historical masterpieces. The Judgment of Paris engraving after Raphael and The Pastoral Concert attributed to Titian largely inspired Manet for its composition.
While traditional artists following the Parisian Academy style could have the chance to exhibit their work at the Salon, the Salon des Refusés was created for artists banned because of their modernity. The French word “refusé” means rejected. The first Salon des Refusés took place in 1863 when the official Salon refused 3000 out of 5000 applications. Manet presented three paintings in 1863, including Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe.
Manet’s masterpiece inspired many other artists, including Claude Monet, who painted his Déjeuner sur l’herbe in response to Manet’s painting. Paul Cézanne painted another Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe in 1876, and Pablo Picasso created dozens of paintings, engravings, and drawings after Manet’s work.
Manet painted another masterpiece, Olympia, in 1863. Yet he chose not to present it to the public at the first Salon des Refusés. The painting rose an even greater scandal than Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe when exhibited at the 1865 Salon.
Manet featured a demi-mondaine, an educated and fancy prostitute courted by rich men, laying on a bed. The place evokes a harem. A servant stands next to her with what must be a bouquet sent by one of her clients. Just as in Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, Olympia’s composition refers even more to the works of the ancient masters. The connections to Titian’s Venus of Urbino and Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus are clear. The subject chosen by Manet is not new, but the scandal came from the style of the painting. Just like in Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, presenting nudity without any effort to disguise it shocked the public’s opinion.
The individualized, naked woman looks directly at us. Her provocative gaze directly involves the spectator who shamefully observes the scene. This gazing woman also refers to Goya’s painting The Naked Maja. The few accessories Olympia is wearing highlight further her nudity making it an erotic scene. Olympia only hides her genitalia from the spectator. She sets herself in a dominating position; only she can grant access to her privacy.
Many art critics and the public censured Manet’s Olympia. Caricatures of the demi-mondaine started to circulate in Paris. Yet, some personalities stood up for Manet’s art. Émile Zola, French writer and one of Manet’s friends, ardently promoted his friend’s work’s modernity. Baudelaire also backed him up. Although Manet wanted to provoke a strong reaction among the public, the ensuing scandal led to a difficult time for the French painter.
Nearly twenty years later, Olympia still generated strong reactions. In 1884, one year after Manet’s death, his widow, Suzanne Manet (born Leenhoff), acquired Olympia. In 1889, Claude Monet wanted to raise funds to buy Olympia from Manet’s widow to offer it to the Louvre Museum. However, the museum board declined the offer to exhibit Olympia on its walls. After lengthy negotiations and Monet’s insistence, the Louvre finally agreed to receive the gift with the assurance of showing the painting in the museum. Olympia was first kept at the Musée du Luxembourg, then in the Louvre, and it can now be seen in the Musée d’Orsay.
5. The Railway: The French Painter’s Favorite Model
Édouard Manet painted The Railway in 1873. He featured one of his favorite models in this painting: Victorine Meurent. Victorine-Louise Meurent (also written Meurant) was only eighteen-years-old when she met Édouard Manet in the 1860s. He found his figure interesting and unconventional, and she became his favorite model for a dozen years. Victorine already posed for several artists, including Edgar Degas and Thomas Couture, Manet’s teacher. Manet valued her figure as the red-haired and fair-skinned model’s shapes admirably caught the light.
Victorine Meurent became a painter herself and exhibited a self-portrait at the 1876 Salon. Ironically, the jury accepted her paintings at the Salon, whereas Manet’s had been refused. Victorine was the model featured in the scandalous Olympia and inspired the fair-skinned naked woman in Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe.
In The Railway, Victorine posed in front of the Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris. The French painter witnessed the extensive changes made by Baron Haussmann to the French capital during the 19th century. Claude Monet and other impressionists were more familiar with contemporary outdoor scenes than Manet. The Railway is one of the last of Manet’s paintings featuring Victorine. The fashionably dressed woman is seated next to a back-facing young girl, looking through an iron fence to the steam-surrounded train station. The woman has an open book in hand and a puppy on her lap.
The modernity of this painting not only comes from the choice of subject but also from its approach. In The Railway, we can spot a multitude of different viewpoints. The woman’s downward gaze to the spectator suggests that she is seated in a higher position. At the same time, it does not match with the railway station in the back that is represented as downward from the spectator’s point of view. Moreover, the imposing fence flattens the foreground. Manet certainly was part of the artistic avant-garde.
6. A Bar At The Folies Bergères: Édouard Manet’s Last Major Painting
Manet’s last major painting is called Un Bar aux Folies Bergères (A Bar at The Folies Bergères). It illustrates another favorite subject of modern artists: the café. Bars or cafes played an essential role in 19th-century social life. Artists and writers, but also politicians used to meet in cafés to share ideas and opinions. So did Manet and his friends.
Édouard painted A Bar at the Folies Bergères between 1881-82. A blankly-staring woman stands behind the bar, while the reflection in the mirror behind her shows a man standing in front but not engaging in conversation. Manet did not paint it in the Folies Bergères but in his studio. At the time, the French painter severely suffered from syphilis’ complications. Suzon, his model, worked at the famous Parisian cabaret.
Just as in The Railway, Manet shows real modernity in this later work. Suzon’s reflection in the mirror seems odd. Her posture and the man’s position do not match. The painting intrigued and sparked lively debates among Manet’s contemporaries. While some imputed the inaccurate reflection to the painter’s inattention or inability, others perceived Manet’s modernity.
Édouard Manet died a year later, in 1883. The work of old masters and his academic, artistic upbringing always inspired his work. Still, Manet managed to break away from his background and be part of the second half of the 19th-century avant-garde. Today, Édouard Manet is acknowledged as a pioneer of modern art.