What More Can We Say About Édouard Manet? Part 1 of 2
The above photos of Edouard Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergere” from 1882, were taken by me a couple weeks ago at the Courtault Gallery in London, England.
(Click on the images if you wish to view them larger or individually.)
What More Can We Say About Édouard Manet?
Édouard Manet is one of the greatest painters and artists in history. His life’s work was a tipping point, a catalyst for the Impressionist movement, and more broadly, the Western modern art movements after him. As regular readers can confirm, I rarely use terms such as “best” or “greatest” and I try to avoid using overstatement. But when discussing Manet’s work and influences, it’s tempting to use those kinds of terms. If Christ’s life and effects were significant enough to be a point on Western History’s timeline, from which all else can be measured “before” and “after,” B.C. and A.D., then for Western Art, a similar measure can exist: “Before Manet” or “After Manet.”
I don’t think a person can fully understand Manet’s importance and effects from simply reading his Wikipedia article, but it is a fine place to start. Manet is not as well-known as many other artists. His name, so similar to Monet’s, is often confused. And while his artworks are often recognized as archetypal or iconic, his name is not as memorable as Leonardo, Michelangelo, Botticelli, or Bernini.
Lovers of the Impressionists may not even recognize his name as easily as Renoir, Cassatt, Cezanne, or Degas.
To begin to understand Manet, it is valuable to know:
- When did he come into the art world?
- What rules controlled the art world when he began his career?
- Who influenced him and who did he admire?
- Who did he influence?
- What political statements did he make, both within his profession, the broader art world, and politics in general?
- What artistic statements did he make?
Manet’s story begins, as many similar stories begin: He was a member of an affluent family, where he was encouraged to go into law (or at least some other respectable line of work). Instead, he chose to create enduring imagery.
Before Manet, the worlds of art and art patronage were dominated by two primary financial driving forces: the church and the aristocracy. If you look in books about the history of Western Art, these trends, so dominant, can be a little nauseating. How many times are we going to see Jesus horribly crucified on a cross, with dark clouds behind him, and brilliant blue and red robes on those mourning or persecuting him? How many portraits of Kings, Queens, or other rich people, their faces not smiling, their posture uncomfortably erect?
Manet had traveled and seen these themes excessively and redundantly.
Manet had the audacity to suggest, through his art, that possibly the most beautiful things worth recording, using artistic mediums, might things that are: common and universal. To illustrate this emphasis, consider possibly his most famous work “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe”:
Before painting “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe”, he almost certainly had seen this 16th century painting (and others similar to it) at the Louvre:
In the older paintings (the most visually compelling art medium in an era long before photography or video), cultures and generations passed down entire mythologies, allegories, and ideologies. Paintings before Manet were largely “for the purpose of”, serving the King, the Pope, or the State. And toward those ends, as you can see excessively in the world’s most famous museums, paintings were financed and created primarily to support the existing local regime and status quo. In Manet’s lifetime, if an artist chose to deviate from those purposes, or to counter those purposes, they not only faced loss of financial support, but also imprisonment, fines, or even death. “Freedom of speech” wasn’t a civil right in 19th century France and Europe.
In “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe”, Manet suggests the people he has painted are not “of the past.” The painting and the people are not simply allegorical, mythological or didactic. They are absolutely not royalty, clergy, or aristocracy. The people portrayed in Manet’s version are common people, in modern attire, with imperfect figures, undressing and enjoying simple, pleasant foods in the outdoors. And for Manet, the portrayal of those things, was as high of a target as art could hope to aim.
Manet’s artworks went against vast, largely unassailed, and historically guarded Western Art definitions of “What is ideal?”and ”What is beautiful?” Manet’s artworks suggest beauty is not derived primarily from wealth, class status, ornateness, excessive detail, professional distinction, or religious approval. Instead, beauty may be found not simply in ”the eyes of the beholder,” but more so in a beholder’s abilities to see, interpret, and re-express beauty. The history of Western Art “After Manet” suggests his theories and priorities ended up on the winning side of most of those artistic debates.
Here is a chart showing when Manet was born, in relation to other famous Impressionist painters:
For regular readers and writers: Part 2 of this post series should appear soon.