Edouard Manet was a French artist of the 19th-century associated with Realism and Impressionism and became a pivotal figure for the transition between the two movements. Edouard Manet is often regarded, alongside Gustave Courbet, as the Father of Modern painting. His artworks were especially noted for the black outlines on the figures, loose brushstrokes, and roughly finished paintings, which was quite novel at the time. Greatly slandered during his career, Manet would consolidate his name as one of Western art's most pivotal figures.
He was born to an upscale Parisian family in January 1832. His father was a judge, Auguste, and his mother, Eugénie-Desirée Fournier, was related to Swedish royalty, whose father was a diplomat. Manet's uncle, Edmond Fournier, was the only relative who stimulated his love for art, taking him to visit the Louvre - unlike his father, who wished that Manet studied law.
At the age of thirteen, the young aspiring artist met the politician and journalist Antonin Proust as he enrolled in drawing lessons. Proust eventually became the Minister of Fine Arts, as well as Manet's good friend. He began to study under Thomas Couture, an Academic artist, in 1850 after failing the admission test for the Navy. He continued studying with Couture for six years, in addition to copying works of past masters in the Louvre. During this period of studies, Manet also traveled extensively to locations like Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands, coming in contact with artwork by Diego Velázquez, Francisco de Goya, and Frans Hals, all who inspired him deeply.
Manet would reject the working method he learned in Couture's studio, where his teacher created his artworks with several layers of paint over a dark-toned base. Manet would rather execute his paintings alla prima, applying opaque paint over a light-toned ground. Manet, along with Gustave Courbet, is regarded as the pioneer of this method, which allowed the artist to finalize a painting in one sitting. This method became the staple for the following generation of painters.
After concluding his travels and studies with Couture in 1856, he opened his own studio. By this time, Manet was adopting themes of Realist artists like Gustave Courbet, emphasizing contemporary themes instead of Classical subjects of religious or mythological stories. The Absinthe Drinker, concluded in 1859, is an example of a painting with a modern motif. In 1861, Manet received recognition from the Academy when two of his paintings were accepted at the prestigious Paris Salon, including The Spanish Singer. Although academically trained, Manet used looser brushstrokes and simplified details, which surprised many young artists.
One of the artist's first masterpiece was Luncheon on the Grass, which was rejected from the Paris Salon. The artwork was considered controversial and was shown in the parallel exhibit Salon des Refusés, organized by the Impressionists. Manet joined traditional compositions and references of Classic art in paintings with contemporary themes that shocked critics and the public alike.
Apart from the rendering being considered unfinished and sketch-like, one of the elements that caused such a furor was the depiction of a nude woman accompanied by two men in contemporary clothes. The representation of a woman's nudity without a classical setting or allegorical meaning was not accepted and was viewed as highly improper. According to scholars, to woman stares defiantly towards the viewer, as if confronting their exacerbated morality and elevating the composition's overall boldness.
According to art historians, the disposition of the subjects in Manet's artwork is derived from The Judgment of Paris, an engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi, based on one of Raphael's drawings. They also note two artworks as possible references—the Pastoral Concert and The Tempest, attributed to the Rennaisance masters Titian and Giorgione, respectively.
The nude Olympia, painted in 1863, was another controversial masterpiece that references the Classic artwork, Venus of Urbino (1538), by Titian as well as The Nude Maja by Goya. Olympia, a portrayal of a claimed prostitute, was eventually accepted into the Paris Salon, and, like the aforementioned Luncheon on the Grass, it caused a scandal.
Part of the reason for such an outrage was the rendering of a nude woman with small pieces of clothing, such as a bracelet, an orchid in her hair, mule slippers, and a ribbon around her neck, emphasizing her unclothed body. The model is depicted rather comfortable with her courtesan and her nakedness, which, as in Luncheon on the Grass, accentuated the daring qualities of both the subject and the artwork itself.
Again, the depiction of a naked body deprived of idealism was not well received. Also, the bouquet of flowers, the orchid, her upswept hair, and the black cat, were regarded as symbols of sexuality. On that note, comparing with Titian's, whereas a tranquil looking dog sleeps by the subject's feet, Manet rendered a fussed black cat, suggesting sexually rebellious undertones.
Berthe Morisot is responsible for bringing Manet to join in the Modern ways of painting around 1868, like painting en plein air, which she learned through Camille Corot. Through her, he met and befriended many painters of the Impressionism, like Camille Pissarro, Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, and Alfred Sisley.
By 1868, Manet made acquaintances and befriended Berthe Morisot, one of the most prominent female painters of the period and an important representative of the Impressionist movement. They formed a close relationship, and Morisot would later marry Manet's brother, Eugene Manet. The couple was depicted in many of Manet's artworks. According to scholars, Morisot was responsible for encouraging Manet to take outdoor painting, although he continued to consider the studio a proper location for serious work. The relationship was very reciprocal. The artists would incorporate some of each other's techniques.
Unlike his Impressionist peers, Manet maintained throughout his career the reverence for the official Paris Salon, rather than focusing on independent exhibitions. In fact, in order to not be associated with the movement, Manet did not participate in any of the Impressionist showings, despite being one of the harbingers of the style. However, Manet was inspired by the works of the Impressionists, such as Claude Monet and Berthe Morisot, especially regarding their use of color. By the early 1870s, Manet's works featuring dark backgrounds became less frequent, although he maintained a consistent use of black in his compositions, uncommon in the paintings of the Impressionists.
In many of Manet's artworks, the artist employed his observations upon everyday life, such as cafe scenes. He often depicted people's interaction with their surroundings, such as drinking beer, flirting, reading, or simply waiting. Most of these artworks were based on sketches the artist produced on the spot, creating snapshots of bohemians, working people, and the wealthy. According to scholars, the execution of these artworks was inspired by the production of Frans Hals and Diego Velazquez.
Manet's depictions of modern life also included scenes of war, considered updated interpretations of the traditional genre of history painting. The first of such paintings is his Battle of the Kearsarge and Alabama, depicting a single-ship sea skirmish of the American Civil War between the warship USS Kearsarge of the United States Navy and the Confederate CSS Alabama, which was sunk. The battle was fought in 1864 on the coast of France and was possibly witnessed by the artist.
The next war-related subject explored by Manet was the Execution of the Emperor Maximillian. Between 1867 and 1869, the artist created three large versions of the painting, a small oil sketch, and a lithograph. Some of these paintings, which raised concerns over French domestic and foreign policy, are amongst Manet's largest artworks, suggesting the artist regarded the theme with utmost importance. These artworks depict the moment Emperor Maximillian I is being executed by Mexican forces loyal to Benito Pablo Juarez's deposed president. Since his arrival, the Emperor faced heavy opposition by the aforementioned loyalists. After the withdrawal of the French troops by Napoleon III in 1866, Maximillian's reign would collapse, followed by his capture and execution.
Here, the artist employed an unusual composition where the traditional convention of deep space is disregarded. Instead of depicting a natural background on an outdoor scene, the artist opted to disrupt the cityscape with an iron grating that boldly extends across the canvas, narrowing the composition's overall focus to the foreground. The only evidence of the railway is the cloud of steam created by the train. According to scholars, the artwork was not well received, being regarded as sketchy and incoherent. Like many of Manet's oeuvre, only a few people at the time would notice the modernity of the painting.
The artist's body began to feel the health effects of his contracted syphilis by his mid-forties, especially extreme pain. His legs became partially paralyzed, and he developed difficulties in controlling his movements, known as locomotor ataxia.
Manet was able to paint small artworks, mostly still lifes, like The Lemon and A Bunch of Asparagus, during the final phase of his life. In 1882, he saw his last masterpiece accepted in the Paris Salon; A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère). He passed away in 1883 in his hometown, about two weeks after amputating his gangrened foot.
Although criticized continuously during his career, Manet was an outstanding artist who produced beautiful Realist paintings and delved into the modern world of Impressionism and continues to inspire until today. During his 23-year career, Manet created about 130 oil paintings, 89 works on pastel, and over 400 artworks on paper. Considered "early modern", Manet's artworks were constantly criticized for his unconventional finish and compositions. However, they would always find admirers, people who saw their modernity from the beginning. One of Manet's main defendants was the distinguished French writer Emile Zola, who regarded his artworks as luminous and serious paintings that interpreted nature with a gentle brutality.
Manet's Realist artworks were considered especially modern for his frequent use of black outlining in the figures and their photographic lighting. His work was also noted for its roughly finished qualities, with loose brushstrokes and sketch-like tonal passages, drawing attention to the pictorial surface and the very material employed to their execution. These elements were often considered one of the stepping stones for the Impressionist movement. Manet also drew inspiration from Renaissance paintings for his compositions. However, the artist often subverted these artworks into a modern view and setting. Again, this practice was not well-regarded at the time.
Through these quotes, one can have a glimpse of Manet’s artistic views:
“I am influenced by everybody. But every time I put my hands in my pockets I find someone else's fingers there.”
“Color is a matter of taste and of sensitivity.”
“There are no lines in nature, only areas of color, one against another. ”
“You would hardly believe how difficult it is to place a figure alone on a canvas and to concentrate all the interest on this single and universal figure and still keep it living and real. ”
“It is not enough to know your craft - you have to have feeling. Science is all very well, but for us, imagination is worth far more.”
“I need to work to feel well.”
- Edouard Manet