London Art Reviews

Magazine of art press and reviews from London

“Manet: Portraying Life” was a great success, at the Royal Academy of Arts, London.

“Manet: Portraying Life” was a great success, at the Royal Academy of Arts, London.

David Franchi – Thursday, 18th April 2013

“he analysed the social life of Paris in 19th-century”

Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets, 1872, Photo © RMN (Musée d'Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets, 1872, Photo © RMN (Musée d’Orsay) / Hervé Lewandowski

The exhibition “Manet: Portraying Life” closed with a great success, at the Royal Academy of Arts, London. It was the first major exhibition in the UK to showcase Edouard Manet’s portraiture. Manet was involved in the great debate in between Realism and Modernity that took place at the end of the 19th century. Manet has been one of the most important artists who depicted contemporary life in Paris.

Manet: Portraying Life” included about 60 painting spanning the career of this archetypical modern artists together with a selection of Masters and contemporary photographs space. The Royal Academy exhibition brings together works from both public and private collection across Europe, Asia, Brazil and the USA.

After so many years, the painting of Manet remains extraordinary. About the sitters, he worked with models as long as friends, but also with family members. It is unclear who the sitters are and, after one has been amazed by his mastery, it is not really important.

Manet was involved in the multicultural environment of Paris that has been the cradle of many artistic movements. In the late 19th century, the capital of France was full of personalities such as Emile Zola, Stephane Mallarmé, Charles Baudelaire, Claude Monet, Clemanceau, Marcel Proust, etc. Manet knew all of them and for many made a portrait. At “Manet: Portraying Life”, for example, in his very celebrated painting “Music in the Tuileries Gardens”, many of his friends can be spotted and it created a little scandal at that time.

In the span of his life, Manet was not supported by critics. However, he found a prop up in Émile Zola, who backed him on the press. Stéphane Mallarmé and Charles Baudelaire, instead, pushed him in to depict life as it was. Manet, in turn, drew or painted each of them. Manet depicted many scenes of the streets of Paris in his works, making a scandal.

Important are the subjects Manet depicted. In his cafe scenes he analysed the social life of Paris in 19th-century. He painted common people enjoying popular activities as well as the upper class enjoying more formal social activities. His answer to modern life included works dedicated to war, in a style that reminds the genre of “history painting”.

Manet became friends with the Impressionists group – Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Paul Cézanne

Music in the Tuileries Gardens, 1862, courtesy The National Gallery, London. Sir Hugh Lane Bequest, 1917.

Music in the Tuileries Gardens, 1862, courtesy The National Gallery, London. Sir Hugh Lane Bequest, 1917.

and Camille Pissarro – through another painter, Berthe Morisot. Despite the fact that Manet work influenced and anticipated the Impressionist style, he resisted involvement in their exhibitions. Manet did not want to be considered as a member of a group in general, but also he preferred to exhibit at the Paris Salon, while Impressionists was abandoned it in favour of independent exhibitions.

Several are the highlights of the exhibition “Manet: Portraying Life”, including the famous “The Railway” (aka “Gare de Paris Saint-Lazare”), a controversial painting because depicting normal people life and in a very unusual environment. Another worldwide renowned piece is “Le Déjeneur sur l’Herbe”, another scandalous artwork.

At the Royal Academy the first room is dedicated to portraits of Manet’s family members, including “The Luncheon” that depicts Léon the son of his wife. Manet married Suzanne Leenhoff in 1863. Leenhoff was a Dutch-born piano teacher of Manet‘s age. She initially was employed by Manet’s father, Auguste, to teach Manet and his younger brother piano. She also may have been Auguste’s mistress. Out of wedlock, in 1852, Leenhoff gave birth to a son, Leon Koella Leenhoff.

Born into a prosperous family, Manet did not have to work to live by his art. This freedom permitted him to choose his subjects, and to approach both composition and technique without reference to convention. Like many artists before him, Manet involved members of his close family as sitters for his portraits and models for his genre paintings, especially during the 1860s. However, his wife Suzanne is a constant presence to all is oeuvre.

In the second room there is only one painting, “Music in the Tuileries Gardens”, made in 1862. This work is both a group portrait and the painting of modern life in which the artist is present on the extreme left as the orchestrator of this social gathering – a cultural ‘self portrait’. The participants includes such artists as Henri Fantin Latour and Frédérique Bazille, writers and critics including Charles Baudelaire and Theophile Gautier, and musicians such as Jacques Offenbach, as well as society figures and members of Manet’s family.

The Railway, 1873,  National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ph. courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

The Railway, 1873, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ph. courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

The third room contains an interesting innovation, but not artworks: it is an interactive place about Manet life. There are tables with books about the exhibition, a very big timeline panel – where is possible to follow the life of the artist – and manual activities, such as papers and colours that help children to approach the word of such an important artist.

The exhibition proceeds in rooms showing many portraits – almost all Manet body of work is portraiture. There is one portrait of Stephane Mallarmé, another of Marcelin Desboutin, and the portrait of Antonin Proust, the brother of the famous writer Marcel, who was also a minister.

The last two rooms are focused on Manet models. Although he employed professional models throughout his career, he also used non-professionals, such as the daughter of a Rue de Mouscou bookseller who sat for “The Amazon”. Manet has used friends such as Proust, but also he relied on female friends and acquaintances famous for the beauties, including Mèry Laurent and Jeanne Demarsy and Isabelle Lemonnier. At the exhibition “Manet: Portraying Life”, on show there is also a pastel of Suzette Lemaire and her daughter Madeleine. However, the most important of all the models of Manet was Victorine Meurent. They met in 1862and over the succeeding decade she was to pose for seven of Manet major works, including “Le Déjeneur sur l’Herbe”, “Olympia”, and “The Railway”.

Edouard Manet was born in Paris on 23rd of January 1832, from an important family. His mother, Eugénie-Desirée Fournier, was the daughter of a diplomat and goddaughter of the Swedish crown prince Charles Bernadotte, from whom the Swedish monarchs are descended. His father, Auguste Manet, was a French judge who expected Edouard to pursue a career in law. His uncle, Edmond Fournier, encouraged him to pursue painting and art.

At this father’s suggestion, in 1848 Manet sailed on a training vessel to Rio de Janeiro. From 1852 to 1856, Manet studied under the

Portrait of M. Antonin Proust, 1880, lent by the Toledo Museum of Art, Photo Photography Incorporated, Toledo.

Portrait of M. Antonin Proust, 1880, lent by the Toledo Museum of Art, Photo Photography Incorporated, Toledo.

academic painter Thomas Couture. From 1853 to 1856 he visited Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands. In 1856, he opened a studio. Inspired by Gustave Courbet, in this period his style was the Realism, characterises by loose brush strokes, simplification of details and the suppression of transitional tools. From this period are the well-known “Music in the Tuileries Gardens”, “Luncheon on the Grass” (Le déjeuner sur l’herbe), and “Olympia”.

Manet style developed into a more roughly painted style and photographic lighting that had given to his artworks a specifically modern approach. His work is considered ‘early modern’, also because of the black outlining of figures, which draws attention to the surface of the picture plane and the material quality of paint.

Manet died of rheumatism and untreated syphilis, which he contracted in his forties. The disease caused him considerable pain and partial paralysis. His left foot was amputated because of gangrene. But on 30th April 1883, few days later the operation, Manet died aged 51. He remains a key figure of the transition from Realism to Impressionism.

The exhibition at the Royal Academy was intriguing and well organized. The approach of “Manet: Portraying Life” to the artist body of work was very interesting.

“Manet: Portraying Life” has been organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in collaboration with the Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio. The exhibition has been curated by Mary Anne Stevens, Director of Academic Affairs, Royal Academy of Arts and Dr Lawrence W. Nichols, William Hutton Senior Curator, European and American Painting and Sculpture before 1900, Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio. “Manet: Portraying Life” was sponsored by BNY Mellon.

At the Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly, London, “Manet: Portraying Life” was on show from 26th January until 14th April 2013.

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