His Famous Works
Argenteuil Canvas, 123.5 × 131 (48 5/8 × 51 5/8) Musée des Beaux-Arts, Tournai
Balcony Canvas, 172 × 125 (67 3/4 × 49 1/4) Louvre, Paris
Déjeuner sur l'herbe Canvas, 215 × 270 (84 1/2 × 106 1/4) Louvre, Paris
La musique aux Tuileries Canvas, 76 × 118 (30 × 46 1/2) By courtesy of the Trustees of the National Gallery, London
Olympia Canvas, 130 × 190 (51 × 74 3/4) Louvre, Paris
( 1823-1883). French painter, born and died in Paris. Manet belonged to the upper middle class, and his existence was bound to that class; he remained attached to the privileges it enjoys, wished to receive the honours and recognition it confers, and at the same time gave rise during his lifetime to the most violent scandals and unwittingly produced through his painting a complete revolution. He brought a taste for liberty that did correspond to the aspirations of the time but was not yet admitted in its consequences. Academic art was still dominated by what was thought to be a tradition but in fact consisted of no more than the impoverished remnants of superannuated formulae. At the beginning Manet probably had no intention of playing the part of a revolutionary leader. He had very prudently begun by setting out upon a more conventional career.
Yielding to family insistence, he started out in 1848 as a student pilot on a training ship, having failed in the competition at the Naval Academy. But to follow his calling as an artist he enrolled a few months later in the studio of the painter Thomas Couture. His independence brought him into immediate conflict with his teacher. He did not, however, approach the profession with preconceived ideas, sure of inventing a personal technique. He frequented the Louvre very assiduously, his lessons left him unsatisfied, and the example of masterpieces convinced him that he had more to learn from the masters and from Nature. His character as a painter therefore derived from his stays in Fontainebleau and from his admiration for Tintoretto, Titian and Velasquez. In his first works, already stamped by these influences, an inclination can be discerned for clear colours, a free touch, and large vibrant flat areas. His visits to Holland, Germany and Italy reinforced this tendency, in which he was reviving the freedom and dash of Frans Hals and the Venetians of the Renaissance. In the Portrait of a Spanish Musician, which he exhibited at the Salon of 1861, he revealed the attraction held for him by Spain, which he had just discovered in a play given by a troupe of travelling singers and dancers. To this chance is due the famous picture of Lola of Valencia, the 'pink-and-black jewel' celebrated by Baudelaire. The affinities between Manet's art and Spanish painting were once thought so obvious that a critic described Manet as a 'Parisian Spaniard', and Courbet, on the occasion of the 1865 Salon, where Olympia was exhibited, said: 'This young fellow had better not try to pull Velasquez over our eyes'. However, it was not until that year that Manet finally went to Spain to see the masters by whom he was supposed to have been influenced. His admiration for Velasquez was strengthened and he discovered Goya.
From the beginning, then, Manet was astonishing and bewildering. The first violent reactions of the public dated from 1863, when he exhibited Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe at the famous Salon des Refusés. The scandalousness attributed to this picture is difficult to understand today. It seemed indecent because it represented a naked woman sitting on the grass between some young men in contemporary dress. At the time nudes were tolerated only in allegorical scenes, when the figures were supposed to represent gods. Actually it is very likely that the technique was even more shocking than the subject. With its freshness and vivacity of colour and its broad execution, the canvas seemed to have been painted on the very spot rather than in the studio. All this indicated on the part of the young artist an inexcusably warped character, an audacity which made him exceed the limits of decency. The rejection of convention, the boldness of the elements employed had at the time an aggressive character, which, in drawing the opprobrium of the righteous bourgeoisie down upon him, made
Manet the leader of the young painters. His attitude became even more apparent at the Salon of 1865, where he exhibited Olympia. Zola found it the pictorial counterpart of the theories he was himself beginning to elaborate. He felt in the work, in its reaction against accepted standards, a frankness and certainty revealing an art already liberated and sure of itself, leaving all hesitations and gropings behind it. The public was offended by the presence of a black cat at the foot of the bed, and the Negress offering a bouquet of flowers seemed out of place. The critics, for their part, deplored the lack of shading, the brutality of the drawing, and the crudity of the light, when they did not go so far as to insult. Jules Clarétie, very categorical in his denunciations, typified the attitude adopted by the antagonists: 'What is this odalisque with the yellow belly, some indecent model picked up God knows where, presuming to represent Olympia? Olympia? What Olympist? A prostitute, beyond a doubt. M. Manet will never be reproached for idealizing the foolish virgins -he'll drag them all through, the mud, more likely.' The model Clarétie so grossly insulted was the pretty Victorine Meurend, the central figure of Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe before she became Olympia and who was to be The Fifer the following year. Today Olympia seems to us one of the finest achievements of modern art. In it one admires the unexpectedness of the pose, the firmness and purity of outline, the sincerity of the expression, and the consummate mastery of the composition. Enclosed in its abstract but still living whiteness, seldom has a woman's body known such nudity.
The painters a few years younger than Manet who were soon to create Impressionism did not underestimate the importance of these experiments. They recognized in Manet a precursor behind whom they could gather to renew painting more drastically than the art of a Courbet or a Corot had undertaken to do, much as they admired those painters. Manet benefited in turn from the good feeling of the younger men: having set them the example of his mastery and youthful boldness, he found them, with their glorification of light colour, a stimulus and a new source of inspiration. Although he did not participate in the Impressionist exhibitions organized after 1874, he felt the appeal of this renovation, as his lightened palette testifies. However, he did not become devoted to landscape for its own sake: his outdoor scenes always contained figures, which were the occasion for him to arrange, among the blue and grey reflections with which he surrounded them, dark colours that were set off by the contrast. While he shared with the Impressionists the desire to express sense impressions in all their immediacy, he never resorted to the systematic breakdown of colour. Unlike his young friends, he had no horror of black -- quite the opposite. Black was to him, as to Frans Hals, a real colour, which he. often used, and which gave an extraordinary brightness to many of his compositions. Neither was he haunted by plastic problems like Cézanne, or obsessed with drawing like Degas. Manet did not attempt to set up a system: less a theoretician than a painter, instinctively inspired and gifted, he wanted, above all, to re-create on canvas the vividness and intensity of what he experienced. No doubt he was always surprised by the scorn he encountered in academic circles. For a long time he persisted in exhibiting at the Salon and ended by being awarded a secondary medal that put him out of the running. But this was in 1881, and his career was already fulfilled -- so much so, in fact, that the next year he was made Chevalier of the Legion of Honour (through the intervention of Antonin Proust, his fellow student at the Collège Rollin, who had by then become Minister of Fine Arts).
The art of Manet is an introduction to the future, in its freedom of handling and the importance accorded to colour. Even when he applied the pigments flat and refused to tone them down, his colour retained spatiality, and this was probably his most characteristic contribution to the art of his time. The importance he gave to colour made him sometimes summarize the surface of a volume in a few essential planes and sometimes, on the contrary, adopt broad, uniformly coloured surfaces, as in The Fifer. It was in connection with this canvas that Daumier accused him of wanting to reduce painting to the 'faces on playing cards'. This was a failure to recognize the boldness of Manet's experiment; for thus to plant a figure in vivid and brilliantly coloured dress against the emptiness of a monochrome background suggested by Valasquez without allowing such extreme simplification to end in a total lack of life, called for the very surest kind of hand. Although every shadow has disappeared and become concentrated in the vibrancy of outline round the form, it is astonishing that this mysterious process has not allowed either the fluidity of outline or solidity of form to diminish. The art of Manet, in spite of all innovations in technique, is nevertheless bound to tradition, because of the influences it has felt, and especially because of the over-all concept of a picture that it presupposes. Like the very greatest artists, Manet was able to take a hackneyed theme and give it such life that it seemed new. Without proof, an unsuspecting person would not think of Rubens behind Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe or Titian behind Olympia, and yet the relationship is indisputable. La Pêche (Fishing) mixes elements found in two works of Rubens: The Rainbow and The Park of the Castle of Steen; also from Rubens comes The Nymph Surprised, a reversed fragment from Susanna at the Bath. The Dead Toreador is a replica of The Dead Warrior of Velasquez, and The Execution of Maximilian a pendant to Goya's The Second of May. These are neither imitations nor plagiarism, but real creations starting from an external and independent reality, whether it be an object, a person, or another picture. No matter what the theme selected, Manet fits it to the measure of his own personality. There is no less intensity or life in the canvases inspired by classic works than there is in The Bar at the FoliesBergère, the subject of which was taken from an episode in contemporary life; and this composition conforms to laws no less severe than the others do. Throughout all his changes Manet preserved a surprising unity. No doubt the ability of some men to invent a new vision, so unexpected that it comes as a surprise, and yet so perfectly in accord with still unformulated aspirations, that its style immediately compels recognition, is a sign of genius. Works like these are of lasting value; when they can no longer surprise they become classics, for the feeling of life they diffuse bears witness to their truth.
Free as it may seem, the art of Manet is not improvised; his compositions are not the product of chance but are rigorously and purposefully constructed. He was not so entirely detached from the subject as might be believed, at least not so detached as his successors. He was easily tempted by large historical compositions, not only in his youth, as the works discussed above reveal, but also when he was in complete control of his powers: The Execution of Maximilian furnishes an example. In 1879 he even proposed to the Prefect of the Seine to decorate the Hôtel de Ville with compositions depicting Paris life: the markets, the railways, the bridges and the race-track. Finally, in 1881, he produced a picture on the escape of Henri de Rochefort from the Noumea penitentiary, which illustrated an event hardly seven years old. One can conclude that he did not have the reticence about anecdote, or even the distaste for it, that begin with Impressionism, and was to become one of the principles of modern art. The interest he took in human subjects made him one of the best portraitists of the nineteenth century. The numerous portraits he did of Berthe Morisot, particularly the one with the black hat, and those of Proust, Clemenceau, Théodore Duret, Zola, Irma Brunner and Nana, not to mention one of the finest, that of Stéphane Mallarmé, should not be forgotten. Toward the end of his life, when he began to feel the onset of paralysis, he took up pastels, easier to handle, and produced portraits of Parisian celebrities that are among his finest accomplishments. The natural elegance of his work permitted him to be a precise and exact observer, who never fell into the slightest vulgarity. Although he always remained on the fringe of the Impressionist group and did not give up work in the studio for outdoor painting, as later artists did, Manet deserves the position of leader that is usually granted him in the history of Impressionism, for he was the first, and for years the only, painter to fight for a new art that sought a renewal of inspiration and technique in direct observation of Nature and contemporary life.