The art of the French painter Édouard Manet (1832-1883) broke with 19th-century academic precepts and marks the beginning of modern painting.
Edouard Manet was born in Paris on Jan. 23, 1832, to Auguste Manet, an official at the Ministry of Justice, and Eugénie Désirée Manet. The father, who had expected Édouard to study law, vigorously opposed his wish to become a painter. The career of naval officer was decided upon as a compromise, and at the age of 16 Édouard sailed to Rio de Janeiro on a training vessel. Upon his return he failed to pass the entrance examination of the naval academy. His father relented, and in 1850 Manet entered the studio of Thomas Couture, where, in spite of many disagreements with his teacher, he remained until 1856. During this period Manet traveled abroad and made numerous copies after the Old Masters in both foreign and French public collections.
Manet's entry for the Salon of 1859, the Absinthe Drinker, a thematically romantic but conceptually already daring work, was rejected. At the Salon of 1861, his Spanish Singer, one of a number of works of Spanish character painted in this period, not only was admitted to the Salon but won an honorable mention and the acclaim of the poet Théophile Gautier. This was to be Manet's last success for many years.
In 1863 Manet married Suzanne Leenhoff, a Dutch pianist. That year he showed 14 paintings at the Martinet Gallery; one of them, Music in the Tuileries, remarkable for its freshness in the handling of a contemporary scene, was greeted with considerable hostility. Also in 1863 the Salon rejected Manet's large painting Luncheon on the Grass, and the artist elected to have it shown at the now famous Salon des Refusés, created by the Emperor under the pressure of the exceptionally large number of painters whose work had been turned away. Here, Manet's picture attracted the most attention and brought forth a kind of abusive criticism which was to set a pattern for years to come. Although this painting is a paraphrase of Giorgione's Concert champêtre, the combination of clothed men and a nude woman in a modern context was found offensive.
In 1865 Manet's Olympia produced a still more violent reaction at the official Salon, and his reputation as a renegade became widespread. Upset by the criticism, Manet made a brief trip to Spain, where he admired many works by Diego Velázquez, to whom he referred as "the painter of painters."
Support of Baudelaire and Zola
Manet's close friend and supporter during the early years was Charles Baudelaire, who, in 1862, had written a quatrain to accompany one of Manet's Spanish subjects, Lola de Valence, and the public, largely as a result of the strange atmosphere of the Olympia, linked the two men readily. In 1866, after the Salon jury had rejected two of Manet's works, Émile Zola came to his defense with a series of articles filled with strongly expressed, uncompromising praise. In 1867 he published a book which contains the prediction, "Manet's place is destined to be in the Louvre." This book appears on Zola's desk in Manet's portrait of the writer (1868). In May of that year the Paris World's Fair opened its doors, and Manet, at his own expense, exhibited 50 of his works in a temporary structure, not far from Gustave Courbet's private exhibition. This was in keeping with Manet's view, expressed years later to his friend Antonin Proust, that his paintings must be seen together in order to be fully understood.
Although Manet insisted that a painter be "resolutely of his own time" and that he paint what he sees, he nevertheless produced two important religious works, the Dead Christ with Angels and Christ Mocked by the Soldiers, which were shown at the Salons of 1864 and 1865, respectively, and ridiculed. Only Zola could defend the former work on the grounds of its vigorous realism while playing down its alleged lack of piety. It is also true that although Manet despised the academic category of "history painting" he did paint the contemporary Naval Battle between the Kearsarge and the Alabama (1864) and the Execution of Maximilian (1867). The latter is based upon a careful gathering of the facts surrounding the incident and composed, largely, after Francisco Goya's Executions of the Third of May, resulting in a curious amalgam of the particular and the universal. Manet's use of older works of art in elaborating his own major compositions has long been, and continues to be, a problematic subject, since the old view that this procedure was needed to compensate for the artist's own inadequate imagination is rapidly being discarded.
Although the impressionists were influenced by Manet during the 1860s, during the next decade it appears that it was he who learned from them. His palette became lighter; his stroke, without ever achieving the analytical intensity of Claude Monet's, was shorter and more rapid. Nevertheless, Manet never cultivated pleinairism seriously, and he remained essentially a figure and studio painter. Also, despite his sympathy for most of the impressionists with whom the public associated him, he never exhibited with them at their series of private exhibitions which began in 1874.
Manet had his first resounding success since the Spanish Singer at the Salon of 1873 with his Bon Bock, which radiates a touch and joviality of expression reminiscent of Frans Hals, in contrast to Manet's usually austere figures. In spite of the popularity of this painting, his success was not to extend to the following season. About this time he met the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, with whom he remained on intimate terms for the remainder of his life. After Manet's rejection by the jury in 1876, Mallarmétook up his defense.
Toward the end of the 1870s, although Manet retained the bright palette and the touch of his impressionist works, he returned to the figure problems of the early years. The undeniable sense of mystery is found again in several bar scenes, notably the Brasserie Reichshoffen, in which the relationships of the figures recall those of the Luncheon on the Grass. Perhaps the apotheosis of his lifelong endeavors is to be found in his last major work, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. Here, in the expression of the barmaid, is all the starkness of the great confrontations of the 1860s, but bathed in a profusion of colors. While we are drawn to the brilliantly painted accessories, it is the girl, placed at the center before a mirror, who dominates the composition and ultimately demands our attention. Although her reflected image, showing her to be in conversation with a man, is absorbed into the brilliant atmosphere of the setting, she remains enigmatic and aloof. Manet produced two aspects of the same personality, combined the fleeting with the eternal, and, by "misplacing" the reflected image, took a step toward abstraction as a solution to certain lifelong philosophical and technical problems.
In 1881 Manet was finally admitted to membership in the Legion of Honor, an award he had long coveted. By then he was seriously ill. Therapy at the sanatorium at Bellevue failed to improve his health, and walking became increasingly difficult for him. In his weakened condition he found it easier to handle pastels than oils, and he produced a great many flower pieces and portraits in that medium. In the spring of 1883 his left leg was amputated, but this did not prolong his life. He died peacefully in Paris on April 30.
Manet was short, unusually handsome, and witty. His biographers stress his kindness and unaffected generosity toward his friends. The paradoxical elements in his art are an extension of the man: although a revolutionary in art, he craved official honors; while fashionably dressed, he affected a Parisian slang at odds with his appearance and impeccable manners; and although he espoused the style of life of the conservative classes, his political sentiments were those of the republican liberal.
Further Reading on Édouard Manet
Useful general works on Manet are Georges Bataille, Manet (trans. 1955), which has a good text and small color illustrations; and John Richardson, Édouard Manet: Paintings and Drawings (1958), with good, large color illustrations. Recommended catalogs are A. C. Hanson, Manet (1966), an excellent study but with poor color plates; Alain de Leiris, The Drawings of Édouard Manet (1969); and Jean C. Harris, Édouard Manet, Graphic Works: A Definitive Catalog (1970). For specialized studies see George Heard Hamilton, Manet and His Critics (1954); Nils Gösta Sandblad, Manet: Three Studies in Artistic Conception (1954); and George Mauner, Manet, Peintre-Philosophe: A Study of the Painter's Themes (1972). A great deal of useful historical information is in John Rewald, The History of Impressionism (1946; rev. ed. 1961).