Édouard Manet was a French painter and graphic artist and is considered the forerunner of Impressionism and one of the foremost representatives of the development of modern art. Manet's artistry marks a distinction between classical and modern art, but is also a union of these.
He partially detached himself from the ideals of established art, both through his painting style and by choosing motifs from his own time. Manet found inspiration in the modern city life of Paris and took his motifs from bars, cafes and theatres. "I paint what I see, not what others want to see", became his language of choice.
In his paintings, Manet depicted the everyday life of the bourgeoisie as well as the working class. He also painted landscapes and portraits, but is perhaps best known for his depictions of women, such as Olympia (1863) and Breakfast in the Green (1863). Both of these paintings caused great scandal. The critics were particularly upset by what they believed to be vulgar motifs with a disharmonious expression.
Manet studied older painting, such as 17th-century Dutch painting and masters such as Titian (1490–1576), Francisco de Goya (1746–1828) and Diego Velázquez (1599–1660). At the same time, he was inspired by the realism of Gustave Courbet (1819–1877). Through his classical education with the painter Thomas Couture (1815–1879), he acquired academic skills, but later he broke with tradition on several points and moved towards a new coloristic painting. Colorism refers to the direction in painting where the main emphasis is on the interaction and effect of colours.
Manet aroused great interest and admiration among the young impressionists in Paris' artistic milieu. However, he himself did not want to belong to this group, and refused to exhibit his pictures at the Impressionists' independent exhibitions. Instead, he tried all his life to get his works accepted at the traditional Paris salon, but here he was rejected and excluded for large parts of his artistry.
Manet had modest commercial success during his lifetime, and it was not until the 20th century that his position in art history was secured by art historians and critics.
Life and career
Through a long career as an artist, Manet's painting style changed character. In the beginning, the works were characterized by a tighter style and realism. Gradually, the muted color palette was replaced in favor of brighter, clearer colors, and the stylistic language became freer, as with the Impressionists.
From 1860 to 1865, Manet apprenticed with the academically oriented artist Thomas Couture. Teacher and student had different views on art, but during his time at Couture, Manet nonetheless acquired important skills in drawing and painting techniques that he would later put to good use. He never completely detached himself from classical art, but was eventually to rebel against several aspects of the academic tradition. His earliest works clearly show the classical influence of Couture, but Manet soon became interested in 17th-century art, and especially the Spanish painters, through his studies at the Louvre. The 17th-century painter Diego Velázquez in particular had an influence on Manet's artistic development, as we see, for example, in The Bar at the Folies-Bergère, painted in 1882.
Even while training in the studio of Thomas Couture, Manet was adverse to the conventional, traditional gestures and artificial facial expressions of professional models. Eventually, Manet mostly used amateur models and had them pose in a more relaxed, everyday way.
Manet and the Impressionists revolutionized the use of color. They discovered that the individual objects in nature are perceived by our brain as pure patches of colour. Already in several of Manet's first paintings, he deliberately abandoned the traditional rules of modeling the form through soft transitions between light and shadow and used strong colors and a dazzling daylight in his pictures. This was radical and should mark a distinction between classical and modern art.
The great fascination for Japan among Europeans in the 19th century influenced the Impressionists and Manet in a decisive way. The young artists perceived the Japanese as modern, and the style became a means of breaking away from the conventions of European art. Japanese woodcuts in particular had a great influence on composition technique, use of color and treatment of the pictorial space. Manet used Japanese art in his works while retaining his own identity.
We see Japanese influence in the portrait of his friend Émile Zola from 1868. Manet had a Japanese screen board as a prop in his studio, and we see it both in Olympia and in his later painting Nana (1877). In terms of compositional technique, Manet borrowed the apparently "random section" from Japanese art, which broke with Western art's ideals of harmony and perspective. This was a move that would characterize Impressionist art. The Japanese inspiration we see in Western art in the 19th century goes under the term Japonisme.
The scandal artist
In 1863, Manet painted Breakfast in the Green, a picture that ensured his breakthrough. Manet drew inspiration from famous artists such as Giorgione (1478–1510) and Raphael (1483–1520), but the painting technique and not least the naked woman together with two clothed men provoked the public. The scene is rural and idyllic, but Manet painted the men in modern clothing, which tells us that this is not a mythological fantasy landscape. This also contributed to the naked woman appearing shameless and vulgar. Instead of painting a mythological figure, such as a goddess, Manet portrayed a modern woman with an almost seductive gaze directed directly at the viewer. This deliberate mixing of genres confused many.
The painting was rejected by the Paris Salon and instead exhibited at the Salon des Refusés, an art exhibition that showed rejected works. (The exhibition can be compared to the Autumn Exhibition in Norway.) People flocked to see, and the work was ridiculed and criticized. The critics emphasized that the picture group was depicted in a harsh, blinding light and placed in a forest interior with a distinctly unrealistic perspective. They also thought that the picture had a flat feel and many sloppy details that did not fit into a finished painting. Here, Manet demonstrated a break with academic art's ideals of an illusionistic pictorial space.
Manet once again caused a scandal with the picture Olympia from 1863. In this painting, the motif is inspired by 16th-century Venetian art and the reclining Venus, motifs that we find in Giorgione, Palma Vecchio and especially Titian's Venus of Urbino. But Manet did not portray his Olympia within the classical tradition. Instead, he used the same model as in Breakfast in the Green, a woman named Victorine Meurend, who was a well-known figure in artistic circles.
The fact that the woman could be identified in the audience made the picture very controversial. The critics also believed that the woman was portrayed as ungraceful and vulgar, that the light in the picture was too harsh, and that the body was flat and poorly modelled. Several elements in the picture also alluded to prostitution, such as the dark maid who appears behind Olympia with a bouquet of flowers, and the black cat with bristling fur in the right corner of the picture. The flowers can be read as a gift from a client, and black cats are associated in Western tradition with misfortune and dark forces.
Ironically, Manet did not want to be a revolutionary himself. Nevertheless, he made conscious choices when he brought classical motifs into a modern, everyday context, and he must have expected that this would arouse reactions. However, it was to take a long time before Manet was associated with anything other than scandal-making for the general public, and he fought against this prejudice through large parts of his artistry.
The Parisian woman and the nightlife
Manet was dedicated to Paris and not least to Parisian women throughout his career. In his work, he often used allegories, such as French wines, when portraying the city's women. Burgundy wine was to be represented by a dark-haired woman, Bordeaux by a woman with brown hair, and Champagne by a blonde woman.
An example of this is the fair-haired woman in the painting Baren i Folies-Bergere from 1882, where Manet also portrays the modern night life in Paris in a sensational way. The picture shows a woman serving a man in a suit in a bar in a nice nightclub. The man is only shown in the mirror behind the woman, and we see the woman from the point of view of the male figure. But the angle and distance between the two is not realistic. The mirror behind the woman gives a glimpse into the crowd, where a festively dressed audience follows an acrobat performance. This performance therefore takes place on the "outside" of the image, where we as the audience stand.
In working on this painting, Manet was probably inspired by his great role model Diego Velázquez, who used a similar play with mirrors in the painting Las Meninas from 1656. Manet's picture appears as a game between different perspectives and perceptions of reality, but is also bold in its simplified, summary idioms. In addition, the painting gives an insight into the skewed power relationship between poor working-class women and wealthy men from the bourgeoisie. The picture can be read as a comment on sexual relations that took place between people from different classes in Paris.
Academic tradition and impressionist influence
Manet met Claude Monet in 1866, but then their relationship was cool. In 1874, however, a friendship developed between them which also influenced Manet in his work. They painted together on the banks of the Seine, capturing the modern leisure life of Argenteuil, the flooding sunlight and the changing surfaces of the water. Manet painted several pictures of women and men in pleasure boats, and in these pictures we see a looser style and a brighter color palette than in many of his earlier works.
Manet also used Monet as a model, as we see in Monet painting in his study boat from 1874. Although Manet eventually became good friends with several actors within the Impressionist movement, he never considered himself an Impressionist. He declined to exhibit his pictures with the Impressionists at their independent exhibitions and continued to send his works to the Paris Salon. He exhibited the rejected works in his own studio.
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