Manet, the Man who Invented Modernity
Paris, Musée D’Orsay, 5 April – 17 July 2020
Reviewed by Victoria Hobday
Spring weather has at last come to Paris and the Musée d’Orsay, on the banks of the Seine, is exhibiting one of France’s best-loved artists to welcome the season. Manet: The Man Who Invented Modernity, promises a fresh look at the work of this central artist of the late nineteenth century. The choice of a spring exhibition sits well with the vibrant palette and breezy brushwork of Manet. With the staging of the exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay or ‘Impressionism central’ many would indeed say that it is a return to the fold for the great Impressionist artist … mais non, non, non!
As any student of ‘Art History 101- From the Pyramids to Picasso’ thought they knew, Manet was the ‘Father of Impressionism’. However, the curator, Stéphane Guégan, states in his introduction that the exhibition seeks to refute the previous descriptions of the painter as ignorant of the world of art and its rules, and is intent upon ‘snatching Manet away from the historiography of Impressionism and the dead ends of modernism.’ Each of the catalogue essays concentrate on different phases of his career and all make the point that at each stage of his career he had a multitude of approaches and interests, united by an overarching obsession with being recognised by the Salon. For this exhibition, Manet is portrayed as a multi-faceted individualist who was wounded by criticism and craved wider acceptance. Although rejecting his role as the initiator of Modernism, the exhibition nevertheless associates Manet with the Baudelairean concept of ‘modernity’, in order to detach him from the group and refocus our attention on Manets’s passions and the époque itself.
I will not labour the way the rooms demonstrate the stages of Manet’s development, which is capably handled, but will only mention some of the more interesting points that the exhibition makes. The rooms are given titles such as ‘Couture’s Choice’,‘ The Baudelaire Moment’, ‘A Suspicious Catholicism’, ‘From Prado to the Place de l’Alma’ ‘The Promise of a Face’ and ‘Impressionism caught in a trap’: in other words, titles that are not merely chronological but identify specific themes that the rooms and accompanying catalogue essays address. Some of these are handled better than others, although one is left with the sense that the Musée d’Orsay has hauled a few fillers out of the cupboards to round off the numbers a bit.
The exhibition begins in the traditional way with a dozen works by his teacher Thomas Couture (1815-1879), under whom Manet served a six-year apprenticeship. Couture was a popular artist who was seen as the official painter of the February Revolution of 1848. His career had taken off in the 1840s and he seemed at this time to embody the aspirations of the younger artist. He stimulated in the seventeen-year-old Manet an appreciation of past masters, a taste for contemporary theatre and an interest in Republican sentiments. Although there are an unnecessarily large number of mediocre works of Couture included in the exhibition, it was a good choice to include an outstanding painted study by Couture, his Back View of a Man (1848-9) (Fig. 1), since this study, with its loose brushwork representing folds of material seemingly blown by the wind (but not the finished larger painting which sits next to it) seems to hold in it the promise of Manet’s floating brushwork.
After guiding us through the beginnings of the artist’s career, the exhibition examines Manet’s fraught relationship with his friend Charles Baudelaire. We are now in the 1860s and can examine Manet’s paintings of Baudelaire, some of Baudelaire’s own ink sketches (including a self-portrait) and a very unflattering painting of Baudelaire’s mistress by Manet (Fig. 2). This eye-catching small work is so strangely proportioned that one wonders whether Manet intended to tease his friend with it. It shows a reclining figure wearing a voluminous white dress seen as if Manet had positioned his canvas on the floor and was painting like a child looking up at the prone figure. The hand extended across the sofa is enormous, while the head is disproportionately small and her expression tragic.
This part of the exhibition examines Manet’s growing connection with critics, artists and writers in his continuing search for support and acceptance. Rather than making comparisons with the work of the Impressionists we engage with his interest in earlier masters, represented by his copies of Tintoretto in the first room and his visit to the Prado and his adoption of Velázquez’s palette in the room devoted to his Spanish works. The relationships we engage with are those with the writers Baudelaire and Zola rather than with the painters like Degas, Monet or Renoir.
In this way we are shown the difficult relationship between the two personalities, as they were close friends but were often critical or not supportive of one another. Added to this we can see the crosscurrents between writing and painting – the new naturalism that flowed through both gave form to a new philosophy of modernity in both literature and painting. There is also a focus on the women who modelled for him, in particular his fellow artist Berthe Morisot (1841-95) whom he painted more often than any other person (including his wife) and who is shown in a number of paintings, drawings and etchings. Morisot is the figure in the painting The Balcony (1868-9) (Fig. 3), which he produced for the Salon in 1869. She is dressed in white and stares out from the canvas at some distant point, her dark curls almost blending with the background’s welling darkness and the arm of the dark suit of the man behind her. The relationship between Manet, the established artist, and the much younger Morisot is alluded to but not dwelt upon.
During his time in Spain Manet painted a number of works that he later cut into pieces and exhibited as smaller works. The effect of this is beautifully demonstrated with three such works: Boy with a Pitcher, The Bohemian and Still Life with Bag and Garlic (Fig. 4) (all 1861-62, cut up c.1865-67). His dismembering of his painting and his revision of it as three separate works throws a light on the way that he perceived his work. It is as though Manet is asking us to view each part through a telescope in order to bring the detail and action closer, while and at the same time denying us the narrative that might have united them. This painting that was originally known as The Gypsies (1861-62) was part of Manet’s Spanish repertoire that included, gypsies, bullfighters and Spanish dancers (Fig. 5). The Gypsies is shown in its entirety through an etching after the complete painting (Fig. 6), which allows the three parts to be assembled roughly into the positions they once held together.
Another engaging aspect of this exhibition is the inclusion of many of his flower paintings and seascapes. All are modest in size. Peonies in a large vase stand lush against millpond-like grey-green backgrounds in Peonies in a Vase on a Stand (1864), while vivid white open peonies lie on an indistinct grey surface next to pruning shears in Branch of White Peonies with Pruning Shears (1864) (Fig. 7). Such works resist being demoted to a minor works and instead demonstrate Manet’s confident engagement with the different genres that caught his attention. His paint strokes maintain a metronomic consistency from the larger paintings such as the majestic Olympia (1863) down to the smaller works like these. His simplest works are in fact very carefully planned. In Beach at Boulogne (1868) (Fig. 8), the artful diagonal arrangement of some bathers who cast deep shadows on the pale sand is anchored by a central figure in dark robes. Such compositional subtlety indicates the amount of thought and planning that lies behind the apparently naïve appeal of this captivating work.
A few old friends were missing from this exhibition, above all the Bar at the Folies Bergere (1882) owned by by the Courtauld Gallery, which is a pity since its preparatory study is there. Another is The Railway (1872), which was present only as a gouache rendition by Jules-Michel Godet over a photograph of the painting.
The translations of the wall texts are poorly done, which is a disappointing for such a prestigious institution, especially as just glaring mistakes as these can be quite confusing to those unfamiliar with the discourse. The rooms, as with most exhibitions at the Musée d’Orsay, are each painted a different colour, and needed calming down a bit. That aside, the internal spaces flow well and the museum has had the sense to keep the numbers inside the exhibition at a moderate level which means that you can see each painting without having to play dodgem. The downside is an absurdly long queue outside compounded by a secondary queue inside the building but before you enter the exhibition. The wait can be up to an hour: it is the tourist season and the crush is on. Fortitude and a good book is the only solution.
© Victoria Hobday 2011
[NB Click on the thumbnails to view larger versions. If you are reading this in an email you will need to follow the ‘View the latest post at’ link to the MAN website to view the show properly]
List of Images
Fig. 1. Thomas Couture, Back View of a Man c.1848-49, oil on canvas, 81×75 cm,Museé Départmental de L’Oise, Beauvais.
Fig. 2. Edouard Manet, Baudelaire’s Mistress, Reclining. 1862, oil on canvas, 90×113 cm, Szépmuvészeti Múzeum, Budapest.
Fig. 3. Edouard Manet, The Balcony, 1868-69, oil on canvas, 170×124.5 cm, Museé d’Orsay, Paris.
Fig 4. Photomontage of the three fragments of The Gypsies by Manet.
1. Boy with a Pitcher or La Régalade, 1861-2 cut up and retouched -1865-7. Oil on canvas ,61.8×54.3cm, The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago.
2. The Bohemian, 1861-2 cut up and retouched -1865-7, oil on canvas, 90.5×55.3cm, Louvre Abi Dhabi.
3. Still Life with Bag and Garlic, 1861-2 cut up and retouched -1865-7, oil on canvas, 27x35cm, Louvre Abi Dhabi.
Fig. 5. Edouard Manet, The Dead Bullfighter,c. 1864, National Gallery of Art, Washington.
Fig. 6. Edouard Manet, Branch of White Peonies with Pruning Shears, c. 1864, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay.
Fig. 7. Edouard Manet, Beach at Boulgne, 1868, oil on canvas, 32.4x66cm,Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond.