• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Manet: ‘Sudden Sensuous Dazzle’

Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid
Édouard Manet: L’Amazone, circa 1882

Outside Paris’s Musée d’Orsay, lines are currently shuffling under tall billboards that reproduce, some eight times life-size, L’Amazone by Édouard Manet. An amazone is a horsewoman, and by extension the tight-fitting black riding habit she would wear in the nineteenth century, matched by a black silk top hat. Thomas Couture, Manet’s teacher, noted how this “pretty costume…chastely delineates the forms of the upper body,”1 and Manet’s image dramatizes the tug of interests implied in his words. Equestrianism briefly frees up the woman he’s painting from the “feminine” ruffles and flounces demanded by contemporary fashion, only to squeeze her corseted torso into a stiff black silhouette. Her hair gets pinned back beneath that black silk, all but for a black fringe: between that and the clamp of her collar, her pale cheeks shine out, a sudden sensuous dazzle.

Distended by the giant poster, the androgynous foxiness just about peeps through. And then the publicity also beckons with its blowup of vigorous brushwork, putting forth that pixilated painterliness that’s become one of the culture industry’s standard cues for consumers. Manet, you can make out, went at his subject with a brisk attack, springing from paint swipe to paint swipe—here jostling, there blending—as he moved in on that succulent fresh face.

The momentum of his excitement carried through as he switched brushes to bash a mess of blues and whites around the outline of her head and shoulders. Let that denote the great outdoors—for after all, this “equestrian” was posing on her feet in his studio, rather than on saddleback in the Bois de Boulogne. Her identity is uncertain, but when she came to him in 1882, he was probably already too ill for plein air work: syphilis would within months put an end to his twenty-year career as the most talked-about painter in Paris.

No need to enter the museum to appreciate all this. The reason to join those lines is that the actual small canvas, when at last you encounter it, turns out to be a three-dimensional object. Most specifically and remarkably: the chase and dance of brushstrokes about that face have led up to the moment when the painter dares to slam in some fat central jabs of carmine—the rosebud of the model’s mouth—and scribble on top of them, in a deep crimson upraised ridge, the parting of her lips. This exhibition is entitled “Manet: The Man Who Invented Modernity,” which might lead you to expect a collection of images that somehow defined a new historical era. But Manet the image-maker, reproducible Manet, is not exactly the artist that the Musée d’Orsay’s curators have chosen to represent: or at any rate, not really the artist who comes through. What the exhibition chiefly encourages you to enjoy is Manet’s instincts as a constructor with paint.

Lay on; bring to the fore; maximize. Instructions such as these seem to govern Manet’s hand. By “maximize,” I mean render the subject at its fullest, its most self-suffused. Let those cheeks be very, very bright, that riding habit wholly luscious in its blackness, that sky so very, very blue. Rendering whatever items commanded his attention, inducing them to exist on the canvas, was Manet’s daily working agenda, whatever else may have passed through his mind. A robust, from-the-shoulder line of activity, like kneading bread or whisking cream, this way of his with dense and opaque colors: at the same time nimble, almost skittering, performed with a kind of exultation in its poise. And all the while, driven on by an anticipation of pleasure.

The exhibition brings you close to this joyful working presence because it opens with an education in pictorial values. You are introduced to Manet’s teacher before you get to know the protagonist himself. Thomas Couture represented a progressive, left-liberal position in the Parisian art world when Manet’s father, a senior civil servant, placed the wayward and unbookish Édouard in his atelier in 1850. Three years earlier Couture had made his name in the Salon with a vast historical diatribe against contemporary Parisian mores, Romans of the Decadence: this comes across nowadays (it hangs just across the Musée d’Orsay’s central vault from its exhibition galleries) as an exhaustively deliberate bore. But the stern palette and hard screw-driving efficiency that quicken your resolve to dismiss it were passed on to the studio class in which Manet persisted for six years. A selection of working studies by both master and pupil shows how Manet was taught to draw with brutal concision, seeking out the most compact foundations on which to erect structures of paint. He was to build those structures up, over dun grounds, with lead white and red earth, chilly vine black and drab vandyke brown—plainspoken, workingman’s pigments, nothing that smacked of ideality.

A terrifically forceful 1860 portrait of M. and Mme Manet—the retired permanent secretary, stricken with the disease that would eventually kill his son, grimly clenching his fist—cleaves to these dictates. But the jumpy energy kept close-reined at this stage only swung into action two years later, as Manet turned thirty. The chief catalyst, to judge from the evidence on offer here, was a girl. From Manet’s first head-and-shoulders picture of the eighteen-year-old Victorine Meurent, a model from the working-class districts, a fresh flair entered his paint application, a fresh sureness of focus also. Victorine—the nude model in Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia, both painted in 1863 and both borrowed from the Orsay’s permanent collection—projected a uniquely laconic, commanding cool into whatever she sat for. (Anyone supposing that the psychology of those pictures depended principally on Manet should try googling Alfred Stevens’s 1870 portrayal of her as Le Sphinx parisien.) The uproar those two big canvases caused when they were first exhibited derived partly from the novelty of the social alliance—a well-dressed man of means not only cooperating with a nude nobody, but registering her sense of entitlement.

With the advent of Victorine, Manet moved into the technical mode he’s ever since been known for—bouncing creamy brightnesses and radiant blacks off a warm pale ground, dropping the mid-tones, jolting the eye with clashing stimuli. You see it sensationally deployed as he played to Paris’s taste for Spanish subjects, as for instance in the 1864 Dead Torero. Whereas in those two great causes célèbres, the handling of the figure, circumscribing bright flesh with the most concise of contours, seems almost specifically adapted to his model’s outstanding self-possession.

Is this to suggest that with Manet—as, it has often been claimed, with Picasso—the woman leads and the art follows? That he unfolds his imaginative potential through a succession of erotic responses? You could take that romantic reading at least one stage further. In 1868 Manet started painting the most fascinating person he’d ever met. So much is evident from his extraordinary images of Berthe Morisot, five of which appear in the present exhibition. (It so happens that he was by this time stably married to Suzanne, the seemingly imperturbable Dutch piano teacher he had been with ever since he was eighteen. Berthe, as alert to the handsome, charming, and by now famous Édouard as he to her, would end up marrying Eugène, his younger brother.) At this juncture, Manet’s distinctive glaring deadpan modulated as he opened up to the intelligence and mercurial insecurities of a female fellow painter. Morisot broods, glowers, twitches her fan this way and that, and you observe Manet’s brush changing gear and accelerating (see illustration on page 18). Canvas after canvas, all through the 1870s until his untimely death in 1883, was taken at the rattling, hurtling careen you encounter in L’Amazone.

Clearly, this readjustment had a great deal to do with the tendency that Morisot, the younger painter, represented. In principle Impressionism was on a track separate from Manet’s modus operandi. The eyes of Claude Monet and friends were abuzz with a continuous field of color stimuli, whereas Manet was latching onto this object or that object, each quite distinct. In 1874, an individual rapport and a loose art-political alliance (he would never join the Impressionist exhibiting group) drew him eight miles out of town to paint alongside Monet in suburban Argenteuil.

Manet still elected, incorrigible urbanite that he was, to render the grassy banks of the Seine with the greenest of coloring-book greens, the water with the most searing of blues. It was speed of reaction that brought him in line with the younger generation. One of the delights of the exhibition is a four-foot-five-wide canvas whisked together, in half an hour’s work or less, to show Monet painting alongside his wife on his Argenteuil “studio boat” on a hot summer day: Manet was hunched down with them under its canopy, darting about with his black-loaded brush to set the couple in close-up; that must have been some sweaty session.

Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Édouard Manet: Berthe Morisot with a Fan, 1872

An exhibition full of heat and light and erotic animus, then. Indeed, Manet’s Blonde with Bare Breasts of 1879 is as dapper an offering of cheesecake as anything in the French tradition, out-Renoiring Renoir; and your appetite is further piqued by a selection of his delicious still lifes. But you can only take this line of reading so far. Manet was famous in his own lifetime and remains so because he was an artist of large ambition. A generation of curating ago, back in 1983—the centenary of the painter’s death—a magisterial exhibition at Paris’s Grand Palais surveyed the range of his achievements. Its shadow still looms over Stéphane Guégan, who has headed the present enterprise. He tells the press he “didn’t want to organise a traditional retrospective; I’m tired of old-fashioned heroic celebrations of this kind.”2 Instead, his team have drawn up a checklist of conceivable personae for the artist, exploring each in turn—often with reference to his Parisian contemporaries—in loosely chronological order. In the light of the vast body of exegesis devoted to Manet, each of their ideas seems full of potential.

From the student of Couture, for instance, they turn to the associate of Baudelaire. Around the turn of the 1860s the aspiring painter spent much time with the ailing poet, some of whose own grimly compulsive pen sketches of fantasy women are on display. One of the real shocks of the exhibition is Manet’s portrait of Jeanne Duval, Baudelaire’s mistress: suddenly, you catch this unmystical scion of secular professional Paris groping his way toward the dark nervy bizarrerie of late Romanticism. The figure of his sitter got blasted away into a flotsam of fragments—one slippered foot, one gross outstretched paw, one tiny lost head—rolling adrift in a great sea of white lace. The violence of the reduction, it would seem, was too much even for Baudelaire to take.

How much did the two men share an agreed common ground? In 1859 the poet drafted his final essay in art criticism, “The Painter of Modern Life,” dreaming of an art that might celebrate artifice and the transience of the metropolis. But Manet’s 1862 Music in the Tuileries, the canvas that seems closest to such a program, has not made it to Paris from London’s National Gallery.

Manet attracted writers—later, he would execute an imperiously public portrait of Zola, and a touchingly private one of Mallarmé—but how much of a reader was he? Possibly he studied The Life of Jesus, the 1863 best seller in which Ernest Renan reshaped the gospel story into a purely human drama: at any rate, in his drive to become the complete painter, Manet decided to take those noble Old Master themes, the passion and death of Christ, and bring them somehow into the present. Bravely—knowing well how these Manets have “revolted his enemies and embarrassed his admirers”—Guégan hopes at last to secure some public appreciation for these “important”3 works. He brings in a gripping head study of Christ crowned with thorns from San Francisco.

But Manet, who disliked repeating his own effects, did not carry its emotionality through into the large-scale Jesus Mocked by the Soldiers (1865) and Dead Christ with Angels (1864). He operated by excitation rather than empathy. It was the prospect of physical objects, whether a model’s arm or face or the chunky folds of his sleeve, that drove his paint constructions onward; and by the mid-1860s, he had put aside not only the tonal modulations of the foregoing French tradition, but many of its other customary props as well. Viewers hoping to interpret the responses collected on his canvases got scant help from the grammars of gesture or facial expression, let alone perspective. Naturally, they started inventing captions for themselves. For the wags of 1865, Jesus Mocked became a ragpicker receiving a foot bath from the nightsoil men, and the Dead Christ “The Poor Miner Raised from the Coal Pit, painted for M. Renan.”4 Guégan now supplies us a line about the latter painting forcing the viewer “to experience [a] triumph over nothingness”5: I’m not sure it fits any better.

Manet, unlike his colleague Degas, was not particularly free with his opinions—his manner was too gentlemanly for that—but he was a man of solidly left-liberal, republican convictions. The exhibition wishes to celebrate this aspect of him also. You are shown a full-scale study for The Execution of Emperor Maximilian—the six-by-eight-and-a-half-foot canvas, reflecting on a disgraceful recent episode in the foreign policy of Napoleon III, that he painted in 1867. With its rush of black scumbles, this study responds to the painterly exuberance of Goya’s 3 May 1808, which was on Manet’s mind after a recent visit to Spain, but eschews its pathos entirely. The riflemen dispatching Napoleon’s hapless colonial stooge come across as cool, charismatic, self-possessed—much on a footing with Georges Clemenceau, the rising star of French radicalism whom Manet would portray twelve years later. Degas, remembering his old friend, said of him that he “had a charming expression. In speaking of a hunchback, for instance, he would say, ‘Ça a son chic.’”6 Style, that’s to say, makes its own set of rules, overriding all varieties of human circumstance. Anyone might look good in their own way, if you come at them aesthetically. It’s a kind of democratizing principle, but it does not exactly equate to fellow feeling, let alone to activism.

In that light, it seems to me that Manet’s politics form something of a visual dead end—and a modest lithograph recalling the tragedies of the 1870 Paris Commune, not to mention a couple of rather contrived marine dramas with radical-leaning back-stories, does little to alter that impression. His sympathies are of strictly historical interest and their resonances no longer sound in our ears. Perhaps the same is true of the bizarre cultural convulsions the painter had to endure during 1863 and 1865, events that for so long have had foundational significance in stories of modern art. Surely Olympia, the object of hysterical abuse when shown at the 1865 Salon, shines out nowadays as a commanding and respectful naked portrait of a strong person, even if spiced up with faintly daft fantasy: as Victorine herself said, his masterpiece.7 The one element in the brouhaha that still remains clear is that this canvas would have dominated the Salon, issuing a blaring challenge to all viewers.

That much reflected the painter’s ambition. Two years later, during Paris’s Exposition Universelle, he opened up a personal pavilion, trying to face down that of Courbet, the apostle of a previous “new generation.” He clearly felt that he possessed what Degas dubbed “a decisive power.”8 He meant to paint everything; he disdained repeats; sooner or later, the great French public would turn his way; sooner or later he would conquer the Salon. He had the means, the wits, the charm: no one who ever met him could find a bad word to say.

  1. 1

    Voyez le joli costume d’amazone, comme il dessine chastement les formes du haut du corps “: see Thomas Couture, Méthode et entretiens d’atelier (1868), p. 258. I was pointed toward this reference by Anne Coffin Hanson, Manet and the Modern Tradition (Yale University Press, 1977), p. 86. 

  2. 2

    Guégan interviewed in “Manet Reimagined,” The Art Newspaper, April 2011. 

  3. 3

    An epithet he uses later in the Art Newspaper interview, in a sentence this paraphrases. 

  4. 4

    Le Pauvre mineur qu’on retire du charbon de terre, exécuté pour M. Renan “: phrase from La Vie Parisienne of May 1, 1865, quoted in Manet, 1832–1883 (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Abrams, 1983), p. 199. 

  5. 5

    Manet: The Man Who Invented Modernity, p. 160. 

  6. 6

    More exactly, this is Sickert remembering Degas remembering Manet, in Walter Sickert: The Complete Writings on Art, edited by Anna Gruetzner Robbins (Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 417. 

  7. 7

    I sat for a great many of his pictures, in particular Olympia, his masterpiece.” Victorine Meurent quoted in Henri Perruchot, Manet, translated by Humphrey Hare (World Publishing, 1962), p. 261. 

  8. 8

    There is in Manet a decisive power, a sort of strategic instinct for pictorial action.” Degas quoted in Paul Valéry, Degas Dance Dessin, in turn quoted in Michael Fried, Manet’s Modernism (University of Chicago Press, 1996), p. 581. 

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print