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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 28 APRIL 2011 — An impressive exhibition of the paintings of Edouard Manet, the first to be shown in France since 1983, has opened at the Orsay Museum in Paris. It is not a retrospective of his work, but rather a demonstration that the manner in which he challenged the Masters of the Louvre was something totally new. Said by many to be the precursor of modern art, more than 140 of his works show the influence of such masters as Titian, Raphael, Goya, Velasquez, Courbet and Monet, while the layman might be forgiven for believing certain of the paintings to be those of Renoir. Manet, the painter who suffered from unending criticism, humiliation and insults in his lifetime, is today acclaimed a genius.

Edouard Manet, born in 1832 to a comfortable middle class family, the son of a magistrate, was destined for a naval career. It was only when he failed the entrance examinations that the young man, who grew up in the fashionable rue Bonaparte, a few doors away from the Paris School of fine arts, that he turned his attention towards painting. 

Édouard Manet: Le Christ aux anges, 1864
Oil on canvas, 179,4 x 149,9 cm
New-York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Dist. RMN / image of the MMA

He spent six years in the workshop of Thomas Couture, an artist who revered Titian and Van Dyck before falling under the spell of Delacroix who authorized him to paint a copy of his Barque de Dante, while his meeting Baudelaire in 1860 paved the way for his portraits of women, in particular Berthe Morisot and Victorine Meurent. In his portraits of the latter, a singer who had fallen on hard times, he found a way of painting the present moment as well as imbuing a prosaic subject with the depth of classical art.

A couple of years later, in 1863, he completed one of his most famous paintings, Déjeuner sur l'Herbe, a work which shows his development in capturing certain moments in time as well as his taste for provocation. Perhaps it was only initially intended to portray the students' light-hearted escapade from the city and their work, but it is a much less innocent picnic than he would have us believe. The fact that the young woman staring brazenly out of the picture was naked while her two male companions were fully dressed caused a real hullabaloo, only reinforced by the figs and cherries as erotic symbols. It may well have been inspired by Titian and Raphael, but it nevertheless remains a work which still intrigues and shocks today.

Édouard Manet: Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, 1863
Oil on canvas, 208 x 264,5 cm
Paris, musée d'Orsay
© Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN / Patrice Schmidt

To his disgust, the canvas was refused at the Paris Salon, and matters worsened when women were advised in no uncertain terms, to "flee" from his "shameless" painting, Olympia, considered an indecent work, completed soon after.

Édouard Manet: Olympia, 1863
Oil on canvas, 130,5 x 190 cm
Paris, musée d'Orsay
© Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN / Patrice Schmidt

Generally considered subversive, these works did not endear him to the impressionists, Degas, Monet and Morisot, and he refused to exhibit his paintings in their 1874 exhibition. Indeed, throughout his lifetime, he remained outside the mainstream of the Impressionist movement.

In 1879, Manet painted one of the most beautiful and expressive works in the exhibition, Chez le père Lathuille. Inspired by the writings of Emile Zola, the artist has depicted an obviously illicit couple in the open-air restaurant of the père Lathuille in Batignolles, Paris. A glass of wine in his hand, the young man is leaning forward entreating with an older lady who is possibly about to end their liaison. Meanwhile, a waiter, teapot in hand, pauses on his way to openly survey them. Nowhere is Manet's gift of painting the present instant more clearly displayed than here.   

Édouard Manet: Au père Lathuille, 1879
Oil on canvas, 93,5 x 112,5 cm
Tournai, musée des Beaux-Arts
© Collection du Musée des Beaux-Arts de Tournai, Belgique

A room at the Orsay was also given to Manet's lesser known still life paintings, Citron, Asparagus, and Peonies with Secateurs, depicting upside down flowers, a pair of opened secateurs  close by, while there was a surprising collection of religious and political canvases. It is hard to imagine any of the impressionists attacking a subject like The Execution of the Emperor Maximilien (1867), or Le Christ aux anges (1864). The artist’s Jesus Insulted by the Soldiers, showing the Christ tormented by dirty, oddly-dressed men, one wearing a helmet, (1865) was inspired less by the impressionists than by Titian, being an obvious  reinterpretation of the latter’s The Crowning of Thorns, a masterpiece dating back to 1542. But it must not be forgotten that during his years with Couture, Manet spent much of his time assiduously copying the Renaissance painters. However, whatever the personal motivation behind these works, they remained misunderstood by his contemporaries to the artist’s bitter disappointment and Jesus Insulted by the Soldiers marked an end to his religious ventures. Certainly, there is not much there to merit his reputation as the ‘inventor’ of modern art.

Édouard Manet: L'Exécution de Maximilien, 1867
Huile sur toile, 196 x 260 cm
Boston, Musuem of Fine Arts
Photograph © 2010 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

While Manet’s paintings, at first glance, leave little room for dreams, poetry or emotion, what they do is to arouse in the onlooker the need to know the story behind what has been portrayed. Who are these people, what are they doing, what are they saying? There is obviously a drama going on in the silence of each canvas.

Édouard Manet: Vase de pivoines sur piedouche, 1864
Oil on canvas, 93,2 x 70,2 cm
Paris, musée d'Orsay
© Musée d'Orsay, dist. RMN / Patrice Schmidt

However, another side of his art emerged before he died of syphilis at the age of 51. Lesser known paintings from the man who became famous with the bold Déjeuner sur l’herbe include Carnations and Clematis in a crystal vase, where flowers suspended in air must count amongst the most delicate of all his works. Bedridden, he illustrated letters to friends with flowers and fruit, while to certain women admirers, such as Isabelle Lemmonier, he worked on poetic water-colours of their faces, small paintings which said more than the letter itself. In his last year, he painted a series of wild roses, lilac, pansies, roses and clematis, always seeking, he said, for the truth. "I painted what I saw", he repeated throughout his life, "A painter can express everything in pictures of fruit, flowers and clouds". Edouard Manet was many things; perhaps it was too simplistic to entitle this exhibition, Manet, Inventeur du Moderne, when he was so much more.

Manet, inventeur du Moderne (Manet, the Man who Invented Modernity)
5 April - 3 July 2011
Musée d'Orsay
62, rue de Lille
75007 Paris
Tel: (33) 1 40 49 48 14

Headline image: Édouard Manet: Amazone / l'été, 1882
Oil in canvas, 74 x 52 cm
Madrid, Fondation Thyssen-Bornemisza
© Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Patricia Boccadoro is a senior editor at Culturekiosque. She last wrote on the Bengali choreographer Akram Khan

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