Edouard Manet was born into the ranks
of the Parisian bourgeoisie on January 29, 1832. His Mother, Eugenie-Desiree
Fournier, was a woman of refinement and god daughter of Charles Bernadotte,
the Crown Prince of Sweden. Edouard's father, Auguste Manet, was a magistrate
and judge who hoped that Edouard would someday follow in his footsteps,
but Edouard was destined to follow another path.
Although well educated, Manet did not particularly excel within the academic
environment but he showed a propensity toward drawing and the arts. His
Uncle Charles Fournier encouraged Manet's appreciation for the arts and
often took him and his childhood friend, Antonin Proust, on outings to
the Louvre. In 1850 after serving in the merchant marines, Manet entered
the studio of Thomas Couture where he studied until 1856. He was influenced
by the old masters, particulary Velazquez and Goya, but Manet reasoned
that ones art should reflect ideas and ideals of the present rather then
the past. So disagreeing with Diderot's theory that great art only reflected
the costume of the past, Manet sought instead to follow the advice of
Baudelaire...to depict a contemporary realism, to be "le peintre
de la vie moderne."
It's worthwhile to note that it was during this time that Paris launched
its massive revitalization and modernization of the city under the supervision
of Baron Haussmann. Up until 1852, the city had retained its medieval
infrastructure which was now becoming most inadequate due to the growing
urban population. Haussmann's revitalization efforts not only affected
the physical environment of Paris but the cultural and social atmosphere
as well. Thousands of jobs were created as streets were widened and lengthened,
store fronts redesigned, buildings torn down and redeveloped all in an
effort to make Paris the most beautiful and culturally progressive city
in the world. It was this modernity with which Manet chose to concern
Manet began his career with The Absinthe Drinker (1858), a painting depicting
a debauched and solitary man amongst the shadows of the back streets of
Paris. Paintings like the Absinthe Drinker, and the Old Musician (1862),
portray a darker aspect of Parisian life which was quite removed from
Manet's circle, but nonetheless very real. La Musique aux Tuileries (1862)
peopled with Manet's friends and family celebrates fashionable society.
His loose handling of paint and lack of subject separated this painting
from the highly finished canvasses approved of by the academy, and accepted
by the Salon. In addition, the painting's ambience anticipates the "snapshot"
quality taken up so well by Degas, and developed further by the Impressionists.
Spanish Guitar Player, also painted
in 1862, reflected the Parisian love of "all things Spanish"
and was one of Manet's first works to be accepted by the Salon. It now
hangs on the walls of the Metropolitan Museum in New York City.
Manet put great emphasis on Salon acceptance. In fact, he believed that
success as an artist could only be obtained through recognition at the
Salon. Ironically, however, it was not Spanish Guitar Player which brought
him his much sought after recognition but the rejected Dejeuner sur l'herbe
(1863). The Salon jury of 1863 had been exceptionally brutal and thousands
of paintings had been refused. To counter these refusals, the Salon des
Refuses was established and it was here that Dejeuner sur l'herbe (also
known as the Luncheon on the Grass) was exhibited. Although influenced
by Raphael and Giorgione, Dejeuner did not bring Manet laurels and accolades.
It brought criticism. Critics found Dejuener to be anti-academic and politically
suspect and the ensuing fire storm surrounding this painting has made
Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe a benchmark in academic discussions of modern
art. The nude in Manet's painting was no nymph, or mythological being...she
was a modern Parisian women cast into a contemporary setting with two
clothed man. Many found this to be quite vulgar and begged the question
"Who's for lunch?" The critics also had much to say about Manet's
technical abilities. His harsh frontal lighting and elimination of mid
tones rocked ideas of traditional academic training. And yet, it is also
important to understand that not everyone criticized Manet, for it was
also Dejeuner which set the stage for the advent of Impressionism.
Olympia, also painted in 1863, caused a similar uproar and the controversy
surrounding these two paintings truly dismayed Manet. It was not at all
his intention to create a scandal. Manet was not a radical artist, such
as Courbet; nor was he a bohemian, as the critics had thought. Recently
married to Suzanne Leenhoff, the well mannered and well bred Manet was
an immaculately groomed member of high society. As Henri Fantin-Latour's
Portrait of Manet suggests - this man was the quintessential Parisian
flaneur. But Manet's unique technical innovations intrigued the likes
of Pierre Renoir and Claude Monet and set free the traditional and conservative
reigns of academic painting.
Political events between the years 1867-1871 were turbulent ones for Paris,
and the Franco-Prussian war left Paris besieged and defeated. Manet turned
his eye to these events in his works entitled Execution of Maximilian,
Civil War and The Barricade. In 1870, Manet sent his family south to protect
them from the fighting in Paris and signed on as a gunner in the National
Guard. There is much primary documentation in the form of letters to family
and friends which expresses Manet's horror and dismay at the war and these
paintings stand as testaments to Manet's sentiments. The Execution of
Maximilian (1868) reaches out to Goya's Third of May but despite its masterly
influence the painting was banned from being exhibited in Paris due to
the "Frenchness" of the executioners costume. And yet along
with his expressions of political disillusionment, Manet also continued
producing works such as The Balcony (1868), Portrait of Emile Zola (1868),
and The Railroad (1872).
By 1874 Manet's reputation as experimental artist and leader of the Impressionists
was firmly established. The Cafe Guerbois, near Manet's studio became
the gathering spot for Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Degas and Pissaro and although
Manet presided over the regular meeting and debates held at the cafe,
he was not enthusiastic about his role as leader of the avant-garde.
In 1874, when the Impressionists held their first exhibition at Nadar's
studio, Manet refused to participate. He chose instead to remain focused
on the Salon. He never exhibited in any of the eight Impressionist exhibitions
and yet by no means did Manet abandon the Impressionists. He worked closely
with Monet in Argenteuil during 1874 and often gave financial support
to his friends who needed it. It was during this time that Manet came
closest to painting in the Impressionist style. Painting en plein air
Argenteuil and Monet's Boat Studio both approach the notions of reflected
light and atmosphere of Impressionism but Manet never becomes assimilated
into the true Impressionist style.
In his last great masterpiece, Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882),
Manet returns again to studio painting, a somber palette and eliminated
mid tones. The cafe concert is a theme which Manet had been treating in
the late 70's in paintings such as Corner in a Cafe Concert and The Cafe.
But here at Bar at the Folies-Bergere, we are no longer spectators, but
participants in the painting. While the Barmaid occupies the center of
the piece, the painting is filled with a menagerie of characters from
seated couples to trapeze artists. Glittering chandeliers and electric
lights fill the upper portion of the work. Here, as in Dejeuner sur l'herbe,
optical contradictions abound.
Throughout his oeuvre Manet painted modern day life, yet many of his paintings
are so much more than simple mimetic depictions. If Manet's work seems
to be full of contradictions, or to employ a lack of perspective from
time to time, then perhaps that was the true reality of Paris in Manet's
time. Always controversial, Manet sought to record the days of his life
using his own unique vision. From beggars, to prostitutes, to the bourgeoisie
he sought to be true to himself and to reproduce "not great art,
but sincere art." He died, in Paris, on April 30, 1883.