Édouard Manet (January 23 1832—April 30 1883) is the spiritual leader of the Impressionist movement in painting which in the 1870s, in France, moved art away from Realism and towards subjectivist modernism. Glaring at Manet’s Impression: soleil levant, the critic Louis Leroy unknowingly gave the name to the movement by declaring that it was nothing else but “impressions”.
Édouard Manet’s Life
Manet managed to convince his father that he was neither suited for public service nor for an officer’s commission in the navy, the two professions his father hoped he would consider in preference to painting. Thus, as a youth of 18, Manet entered the studio of Thomas Couture, an academic painter, with whom he stayed for a period of six years. Before the classicism of his master, Édouard Manet realized with full force his own lack of interest for the mid-tone gradations of Couture’s painting, intended to render the plasticity of his attentively studied subjects.
Contrasted with Couture’s academic style, the insurgent style of the Impressionists could hardly be described more clearly. Where the classicist attempted to achieve the gradient of perfectly rendered shapes, Manet sought to catch a glimpse of a moment by means of colour contrasts and patches of flat paint.
Where the traditional painter naturally required layering of colour on top of a dark background and an indefinite progression of touches and brushstrokes, the Impressionist painters capture their scenery (their preferred subject matter) en plein air, by applying colour directly to the canvas.
Édouard Manet’s first practical studies in painting indeed followed the Realist model (see The Absinthe Drinker of 1859). At the same time, however, he is experimenting with his quick brushstroke technique by copying Delacroix’s Barque of Dante first in an imitative, Realist style, then in an already recognisable Impressionist version. Besides the contemporary Realists, Manet is studying the work of Velázquez (see Music in the Tuileries of 1862 for an example), while observing the great colourists, Titian, Tintoretto, and Rembrandt on his tours to the European capitals. All throughout his career, Manet would give signs of the artistic knowledge that he possessed.
Luncheon on the Grass & Olympia (1863)
Scandal is the word that best describes the public reception of Manet’s first two paintings which unapologetically expressed his view of art.
The creamy nude of the Luncheon was the first to attract the ridicule of the public by its portrayal of a recognisable contemporary (the model and painter Victorine-Louise Meurent) in the manner of a classical nude, in a composition reminiscent of classical precedents, in a classically-minded sylvan environment. While Émile Zola, a friend of Manet, scoffed at the self-satisfied middle-class deprecation, another friend, Delacroix, thought that “the strident tincture penetrates the eyes like a saw of steel”.
When Olympia was then shown to the public at the Salon of 1865, the horror was replicated and for much the same reasons. The selfsame Meurent was depicted in a disposition which the public recognised at once as that of a prostitute, complacently eyeing the spectator as she somewhat gracelessly covers her pubis. A servant brings her a bouquet of flowers, which we readily imagine having come from an erotic admirer or a client. Once again Manet stood accused by the more artistically minded critics of being incapable of accomplishing chiaroscuro tonalities or of colouring his figures correctly.
What the public was ill-disposed to acknowledge in the Luncheon on the Grass was, of course, the impression of strong contrast that a nacreous nude was perceived by the artist as having in the shade of a bower. They were disinclined to notice the triangular architecture of the four human shapes, their precedents in Raphael and Titian/Giorgione, and the sensitive rendition of still life on the bottom left, itself proving Manet’s capacity for accurate shading and detail. Perspective in the painting is achieved by means of the apparent sloping of the grassy surface combined with the inward progression of the trees.
Similarly, the public cared little that Olympia had a reference in Titian’s Venus of Urbino and showed the artist’s study of Goya and his Nude Maya (1800). They failed to see the importance of chromatic contrasts for Édouard Manet. In the colourful bouquet carried forward by the black servant they failed to see the enticing potential of the developing Impressionist technique: a melange of colour which, when seen from some distance, mutates into a lifelike bouquet.
Édouard Manet’s Impressionist project
In the decade of Impressionism — in-between the improvised salon of 1874 and the eighth and last exhibit of 1886 — Édouard Manet became friends, for at least a short while, with all the contributors of the movement: Degas, Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Cézanne, Morisot, and Pissarro. His acquaintance with Zola and Delacroix has been mentioned, but Manet also enjoyed the intellectual support of the poets Mallarmé and Baudelaire. (They, like Zola, saw in the Impressionist scandal an instance of bourgeois society reacting against a faithful depiction of itself.) The Impressionist group would, due to a multitude of ideological divergences, exist only very loosely from 1880 onwards. Indeed Manet’s funeral in 1883, at which only Renoir was absent, would be the last known occasion on which the group of artists could be found together.
The great scientific development ushered into art by the Impressionists is the knowledge of the most recent scientific theories on the propagation of light and the human perception of colour which were being formulated as the photographic medium was beginning to become available to the artists as well as the researchers. Complementary to the selfsame need for snapshot perceptions, it is important to signal the appearance of commercial oil colours in tubes.
These enabled the Impressionists to carry their colours to any location and to proceed with painting at once.
The movement was also receptive to the knowledge of Japanese prints, multicolour productions on wood, the arrival of which in mid-19th-century Europe was due to the intensifying commerce with the Far East. The unusual perspective in Édouard Manet’s Boating of 1874, where the entire background is occupied by the body of water on which the boat is sitting, is a direct descendant of Utagawa Kunisada’s diagonal perspectives. It is also an instance of photographic perspective in Manet, with the ‘objective’ at a higher plane than the two subjects.
For the majority of his artistic life — which produced over five hundred paintings on media other than paper — Manet, like most of the Impressionist cohort, sought to portray contemporary social life as it could be gleaned in the open air and the cafés. Impressionism was in that respect a genuine continuation of the Realist project. “One must belong to one’s time and do what one sees”, Manet would say, in defence of his popularly misunderstood poetics.
In this connection, it ought to be said that Édouard Manet neither sought nor expected scandal. He believed in the truthfulness of his art and, in opposition to some of his Impressionist friends, always hoped to be able to earn a place at the official Salon, which he struggled to do all his life. In 1856, as he was beginning to overcome the transitional tonalities of Realism, he had opened his own studio. That atelier would constitute his ordinary base of operations.
War paintings and politics – Édouard Manet’s influence
Interestingly, Manet displayed also an interest for depicting contemporary events and especially military happenings. He painted the flagships of the naval Battle of Cherbourg of the American Civil War, which he may have witnessed off the coast of Normandy. More ideologically significant are Manet’s several versions of The Execution of Emperor Maximilian (1867-1869), portraying the death by firing squad of the Austrian emperor of Mexico installed to uphold French dominion over the country.
The paintings could not be legally displayed or reproduced during Manet’s lifetime. They depicted a spectacular failure of French imperialism in the Americas on the eve of the insurrection by the Paris Commune. The bar from publication did not surprise Manet, who was also aware that the execution squad’s uniform could resemble the French in the final version of the painting and that the sergeant depicted with a red cap could resemble Emperor Napoleon III. As a depiction of the formalised violence enabled by war, Manet’s endeavour naturally anticipates the famous executions of Goya.
Although listed by his friends as the supporter of the Paris Commune (May 1871), Édouard Manet was not in Paris during the insurrection and the repression by the military. He was ostensibly unimpressed with the communards as much as with the parliamentary leadership of the Third Republic. He nonetheless gave personal support to the leftist cause in the events of May 1877, when popular support for the centrality of parliament defeated the monarchical prerogatives of the presidency.
Édouard Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergére (1882)
Completed a year before his death and at a time of his deteriorating health, A Bar at the Folies-Bergére, a Parisian nightclub, is Édouard Manet’s last great painting.
As a dynamic snapshot of real social life, a depiction of still life, and a deployment of barely shaded flat colours, the painting summates the artistic pursuits and the style of Édouard Manet. The multitude of critical analyses has brought about the realisation that the scene reflected through the giant glass behind the barmaid was correctly portrayed by the artist, with only an apparent inconsistency in the male figure on the right. In typical fashion, Manet’s primary human subject looks in the direction of the spectator, who thus enjoys the impression of personal presence in the convivial scene.
The quick Impressionist strokes have accomplished a vision of liveliness which most clearly manifests at a certain, perspectively natural, distance. By feeling themselves into the sociable scene, the spectators have the synesthetic impression of hearing the burble of a crowd that they observe in front but are hearing from the back, as well as the waft of cigarette smoke emanating from the stalls.