Change of direction in Manet's art


During his earlier period Manet had almost invariably painted in his studio and, like Corot, made sketches in the open air. After his "View of the International Exhibition", he sometimes painted from nature, for example the sea at Boulogne. But we must remember that Manet was and remained a Parisian and did not, like the Impressionists, make excursions into the environs. The first picture of considerable size which he painted in the open was probably the portrait of the Impressionist painter De Nittis with his family, with whom he stayed in the country in 1870. The sun shining on the faces and the stretches of turf, with the play of its coloured patches, induced him to paint this picture.
The Franco-Prussian war interrupted his artistic activities. He become a staff-officer of the National Guard and served under the command of Meissonier, who adopted a cool attitude towards him and did not treat him as a colleague. Later, on the occasion of one of Meissonier's exhibitions, Manet had his revenge. "That is good, really good," he said, "everything is of steel except the cuirass." During the siege of Paris and the Commune, he joined his mother and his wife, who had gone to Oloron in the Pyrenees. He painted, in the open air, the gulf of Arcachon and the harbour of Bordeaux. On his return to Paris Stevens arranged the sale of two of his pictures to Durand-Ruel. A little later Manet himself sold this dealer twenty-two of his pictures for a total of 35,000 francs. He needed money, for his share in his father's inheritance was dwindling.
The summer of 1872 he spent in Holland, where he studied Frans Hals. In Paris, he had left the Rue Guyot and rented a large room as a studio in the Rue Saint-Pétersbourg. In 1873 he painted "Le bon Bock" (the good glass of beer), externally influenced by Frans Hals, and in other respects not very "Manet", because a different series of values, not found in his other works, here takes the upper hand, namely the values of feeling and expression. The comfortable aspect of the fat bourgeois smoking his pipe and drinking his beer ("Haarlem beer", Stevens maliciously called it, referring to the influence of Frans Hals) awakes "Stimmung" in the spectator. For this reason the picture cut a good figure in the Salon. But in other ways too a new order of artistic values was entering Manet's work, the fruit of the "plein-air" and disintegration of colour experiments. It interested him to construct space out of air and light, and the pictures painted in this year, among them the "Game of Croquet"--like many others painted during the following years at Calais and Berck, such as the "Swallows"--show a very exact calculation of distances. These spatial values are realized very often with a minimum of external expedients, more with the help of the atmosphere than by means of the persons and objects depicted. As sun and light give them animation, his pictures lose their static element and become naturally filled with movement.
It is not surprising that in proportion as these categories of plastic values penetrated into Manet's works, certain artistic values, which in his early works had predominated alone, tended to disappear, namely the grey tone values and the melodic values. At times the early colour elements reappeared, but with a very different effect. In 1872 he had painted a little picture of Berthe Morisot holding a black fan in her hand and seated on a chair, dressed in black, with pink shoes. It is true that we find here the black which afterwards was never absent from his pictures, as well as the pink, but no melodic value results, while the dress is cleverly set off against a reddish background, which is not even interesting as a simple colour value. Here it is the clever trick of a great artist which excites our admiration. But we think with regret of the backgrounds of the "Lola" and the "Piper", and of another picture, similar in subject to this portrait of Berthe Morisot but painted seven years before: the "Angélina"--also known as the "Young woman at her window"--where another feminine hand is holding a fan, forming, with the black of the fan, the grey of the cuff and the brown of the dress, a melodic value, which, simpler and severer than that of the "Olympia", produces with its simplicity an impression equal to that which the hand of Olympia produces with its magnificence. But whereas the latter hand remains alone and uncomprehended in the rich history of beautiful hands, that of Berthe Morisot fulfils no higher function and must be assigned to the category of the objects of clever and brilliant painting, such as are to be found in so many pictures. This is the beginning of that Manet who could influence others both in France and abroad, the Manet who could also inspire English and German painters.
This change of direction in his art is probably connected with the fact that his fame now attracted crowds of people to his studio. About this time, when he painted the "Ball at the Opéra", he was visited not only by numerous models, but also by fashionable painters, by the demi-monde and by well-known bankers and financiers. One important relationship must be noted: his friendship with Stephane Mallarmé, whom he met in the evenings at the Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes in the Place Pigalle.

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