Saturday 7 December 2013

Manet - Portraying Life

We saw this exhibition in April 2013.


Manet - Portraying Life, at the Royal Academy of Arts.

This was an exhibition dedicated to Manet's exploration of the straight portrait. 'You would hardly believe how difficult it is to place a figure alone on a canvas, and to concentrate all the interest on this single and unique figure and still keep it living and real', said Manet in 1880.

Manet's portraits are a mixture of two genres: portraiture which is concerned with the particular and the distinctive, the external physical likeness and the internal or spiritual condition; and of genre painting, which addresses the social character and the environment, which has as its origins in Dutch art in the form of scenes from contemporary life.  Manet's quest for the presentation of modernity often led him to collapse the distinction between genre painting and straight portraiture but his main commitment lay with genre painting - he recognised its capacity to reflect modernity, be it the railway, or bourgeois leisure.

Modernity in Paris was the result of Haussman's transformation of the city, following the brutal eviction of the working class from the centre. The result was wide boulevards, promenades, exhibition spaces and parks, which turned the city into a 'spectacle', a place to have outings, to see and to be seen. The city became an image. The distinction between private and public space got blurred and modernity took shape in the new public spaces where the bourgeoisie and the new petit bourgeoisie mingled. Leisure became a mass phenomenon and recreation took on increasingly spectacular forms: the parks, the races, the day out by the river, the café concert. It's this image that the Impressionists, and particularly Manet, set out to capture and present, and more specifically, they were fascinated by the people who used those open spaces.

The experience of 'seeing', rather than representing what one 'knew', took on paramount importance: 'I sought to render only my impression', said Manet. Wanting to give an impression of their subject matter, rather than representing it, coupled with their interest in colour and movement, they focused on the overall visual effect, ignoring detail. The picture plane became shallow, flattening out, almost two-dimensional: they abandoned the efforts of artists of previous generations, who had attempted to create the illusion of three-dimensional objects located in the two-dimensional space of the canvas. Flatness also signified modernity where the flat surface conjured up the two dimensions of posters, labels, fashion prints and photographs.

In his later years Manet abandoned his distinctive palette of blacks and greys and his art took on a new luminosity of colour and freer brushstrokes, influenced by Berthe Morisot.

It was his lack of respect for the distinction between genre painting and portraiture, his disregard for the representation of three-dimensional space and his unrelenting attempt to present modernity, that make his portraits so distinct, that entitle him to his undoubted position as one of the key exponents of modern art.

Mme Manet in the Conservatory, 1879 
Most of the portraits of Suzanne were not intended for public view.

Mme Manet at the Piano, 1868 
Combining portrait and genre painting, the making of music is an important theme in this painting. During the period this painting was made, Suzanne often played the piano to Baudelaire as he lay dying.

The Swallows, 1873 
The figures in this painting are Manet's mother and wife. His use of two members of his family in a genre painting shows how he blurred the distinction between the two genres but also his determination to portray modern life. This is furthermore, a painting executed en plein air, in line with the Impressionists' determination to leave the studio and paint outside, as they discovered that if we look at nature in the open, we do not see individual objects each with its own colour but rather a bright medley of tints which blend in our eye and this helped the treatment of light and movement, so that the overall effect produced is one of the sensation of the object, the impression.

Boy Blowing Bubbles, 1867

A homage to the Old Masters, and a comment on the transience of life and mortality.

The Luncheon, 1868

This painting refers to the work of Vermeer, as well as the art of Velazquez. The scene is a domestic one, but the two main protagonists are disengaged from one another making the interpretation of a narrative problematic.

The Velocipede, 1871 
This is most definitely a scene taken from modern life. Speed is being achieved by mechanical means, a representation of movement.

Eva Gonzales, 1870
The artist at work in front of her easel. An appreciation of the qualities of the colour white and the way it reflects light.


Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets, 1872

A stunning portrait of the artist and a departure from the influence of the Old Masters. Morisot is dressed in the height of fashion, Manet is adopting here Baudelaire's definition of the modern as expressed through the latest fashions. An immediate, direct image.

Berthe Morisot in Mourning, 1874
A contrast to the previous painting. Morisot's hollow cheeks, sunken eyes, black veil, communicate a strong sense of loss. This painting was executed after the death of her father and a more fragile aspect of Morisot's personality is revealed. Black dominates.

The Repose, (Portrait of Berthe Morisot), 1870

Portrait or genre painting? Modernity is articulated through Morisot's dress. As this is a painting of an artist, the work could also be seen as the dialogue between two artists. It has been suggested that Morisot's air of reverie shows Manet's appreciation of Baudelaire's recognition of art's potential to provide an escape from mundane existence. The brushstrokes are loose - Manet emulating Morisot's more open brushwork in recognition of her achievements as an artist. 

Berthe Morisot, 1868-69


In the Garden, 1870

The Monet Family in their Garden at Argenteuil, 1874

An image of bourgeois leisure

Lady with a Fan, 1862

Portrait of Jeanne Duval who had a relationship with Baudelaire. Manet's understanding of modernity and his formulation of himself as 'the painter of modern life' was influenced by Baudelaire. Duval's role as Baudelaire's Muse for his aesthetic meditations concerning a new literature appropriate to the modern age, is duplicated here by Manet - the significance of fashion in the context of modernity is explored in the creation of this 'tableaux'.

Portrait of Fanny Clauss (Study for the Balcony), 1968

A first attempt which culminated in the creation of The Balcony. This is a portrait of Fanny Clauss, a violinist, with Berthe Morisot on the right. The right-hand side of this painting was cut so that we don't get a full image of Morisot. In  The Balcony Manet relocated Clauss to a secondary plane, giving Morisot predominance.

The Promenade, 1880
A woman of fashion.


The Amazon, 1875


The Amazon, 1882
A fashionable horsewoman whose type was remarked upon by both Baudelaire and Zola. 

Portrait of Lise Campineanu, 1878

The Railway, 1873

An uncompromising image of modernity, the title proclaiming the mode of new transport. The picture is divided into two, demarcated by the railings. The governess wearing the latest fashion, keeping her place in her book with finger and thumb, contemplating but not engaging with the viewer; the girl totally engrossed with the train which we cannot see because of the steam that hangs in the air - all momentary: the glance up from the book, the steam, the moment.

Looking closer, because I think this is one of the evocative portraits in the history of art. It moves me beyond words.

Chez Le Pere Lathuille - en Plein Air, 1879
An intimate scene of modern life full of vitality and a sense of movement.

A Game of Croquet, 1871
Croquet, imported from England, a thoroughly bourgeois pursuit.
 Music in the Tuileries Gardens, 1862
This is a group portrait as well as a painting of modern life. Most of Manet's family and friends are here, including Baudelaire making this a sort of 'cultural portrait'. The inclusion of Baudelaire is significant because during that period Baudelaire was investigating the meaning and implications of 'modernity' which included identifying the appropriate subject-matter and mode of expression of a new art, and a consideration of the relationship between music, literature and the visual arts.
The painting focuses on high fashion, which according to Baudelaire was the manifestation of transient beauty which intimated the heroism of modern life. The person capable of comprehending this was the dandy, or flaneur, the role that Manet adopts in this painting - standing cropped in half on the far left of the picture.

In the Conservatory, 1877-79
Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe, 1862
In many nudes and erotic prints, the viewer is a voyeur spying on the subject who is invariably a woman. By contrast, the woman in Dejeuner does not mind being looked at - her pose is casual and untroubled, looking directly at the viewer, engaging us directly with the painting and challenging patriarchal dominance.  This is probably the reason why this painting caused such an outrage when it was first exhibited, not unlike Olympia which also caused animosity amongst Parisians.
Manet, Portraying Life, Royal Academy of Arts
The Painting of Modern life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers, T.J. Clark


  1. My favourites are Madame Manet playing the piano, and Chez le Pere Lathuille - Plein Air - an interesting post. There are just too many good subjects and not enough time!

    I want to let you know that I have linked to your post on Yoko Ono in my latest post for the Ragged Cloth Café:

    1. I like so many of these paintings, Olga. My favourite is The Railway, I never tire of looking at it, and it overwhelms me. Also, the portrait of Berthe Morrissot with a Bouquet of Violets, the face is so expressive. And Chez le Pere Lathuille, the man's face is so eager and ardent, and the way the waiter looks directly at the viewer, inviting us to look too... Manet keeps growing on me: I did an essay on the Impressionists and the Painting of Modern Life last year, concentrating predominantly on Manet and this gave me the chance to look at his work very closely and I just can't get enough of it.

      And, thanks for the link.