Edouard Manet : The Rebel in a Frock Coat

Study Day

Lecture One: Challenging the Rules

Edouard Manet was born into a wealthy and distinguished Parisian family who wanted their son to join the French Navy. In 1849 his father reluctantly let him join the studio of Thomas Couture where he remained for six years, drawing constantly and copying Old Masters in the Louvre. Inspired by the writings of Charles Baudelaire and the Realist paintings of Gustave Courbet, Manet began painting pictures of everyday life such as ‘The Absinthe Drinker’. His love of Spanish art , especially Velasquez is also evident. In 1862 he produced his first major work – ‘Music in the Tuileries ‘ a painting about everyday life in Paris. This was followed by ‘The Dejeuner sur L’Herbe’ which caused a sensation at the Salon des Refusés in 1863. Critics were shocked by the image of a naked model, Victorine Meurent, sitting on the grass between two men in contemporary dress. A mystery surrounds Manet’s marriage to Suzanne Leenhoff – who exactly was the father of her son Leon? What was Manet’s relationship with Victorine Meurent? We will probably never know the answers.

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Lecture Two: Olympia and Maximilian

As if Manet had not shocked the art establishment enough with the ‘Dejeuner’, he went on to exhibit ‘Olympia’ at the 1865 Salon. Again the critics and public alike were enraged by Manet’s sacrilegious borrowings from Titian and Giorgione and his use of a well known demi-mondaine as a model – ‘a kind of female gorilla’ according to one critic. The only writer to defend Manet was Emile Zola who was to become a close friend. A staunch Republican, Manet disapproved of Napoleon 3rd and when the young Emperor Maximilian , who had put on the Mexican throne by Napoleon, was executed as a common bandit, Manet picked his brushes to create his polemical work ‘The Execution of Maximilian’. In 1870, France declared war on Prussia and there followed a series a defeats for the French army, culminating in the capture and abdication  of Napoleon 3rd. The Prussians then laid siege to Paris, and Manet who stayed in the city, witnessed the hunger and suffering of the people. This was followed by the horrors of the Paris Commune, from which Manet fled to the safety of Arcachon.

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Lecture Three: Manet and the Impressionists 1872-1883

Shortly after returning to Paris, Manet was visited by the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel who bought 25 paintings and finally Manet’s work had become commercially successful. In 1874 the first Impressionist Exhibition took place, but Manet would not take part – ‘I will never exhibit at the shack next door: I enter the Salon through the main door, and fight alongside all the others.’ However his art was deeply influenced by that of Claude Monet who became a close friend. During the 1870’s Manet painted alongside Monet at Argenteuil. During this period he was deeply in love with Berthe Morisot, a highly talented Impressionist painter, who appears in many of Manet’s works. Again mystery surrounds this affair, but we know that in 1874 Berthe married Manet’s brother Eugene, and many believe that Manet encouraged this to ‘keep Berthe in the family’. The 1870’s are a highly productive period for Manet with some wonderful paintings of café interiors, culminating with ‘The Bar at the Folies Bergeres’. But he was also painting portraits both of men and women as well as delicate still lives and flower studies. Manet’s health deteriorated as syphilis took hold and he died after an unsuccessful operation to remove a syphilitic leg. He died aged just 51 but he had transformed modern art by successfully challenging the power and influence of the Ecole des Beaux Arts and the Salon, and by painting striking  images of modern life. Renoir said on his death: ‘Manet was as important to us as Cimabue or Giotto were to the Italians of the Quattrocento’.

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