The brainchild of Laurence des Cars, the Louvre’s president-director, “Manet/Degas” is one of the most anticipated and ambitious exhibitions of recent years. The product of an extraordinary collaboration between the Musée d’Orsay (where des Cars used to preside) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it drew 670,000 visitors in Paris earlier this year. At the Met, where the exhibition has been expertly curated by Stephan Wolohojian and Ashley E. Dunn, it includes some 160 paintings and works on paper, half of which come from the collections of the two organizing institutions. Édouard Manet’s and Edgar Degas’s paintings, watercolors, drawings, and prints are installed against relatively muted walls in the Met’s high-ceilinged Tisch Galleries in a sequence that proceeds chronologically and thematically over twelve sections, ending in a poignant coda devoted to Degas’s collecting of Manet’s work in the decades following the latter’s death from syphilis at the age of fifty-one in April 1883. Degas came to own more than eighty works by Manet. “He was greater than we thought,” Degas is said to have commented at Manet’s funeral.
The movement known as Impressionism makes an appearance only three quarters of the way through this comprehensive and moving survey of two titans of French art. And it is Manet, not Degas, who initially embodied many of the radical qualities of color, facture, and subject matter associated with this revolutionary style of painting. With the exception of Manet’s monumental Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, which caused a scandal at the Salon des Refusés of 1863—and which, by the terms of its bequest to the state in 1906, can never travel (London’s Courtauld Institute has generously lent its reduced replica)—the loan of almost every major painting by both artists from the 1860s and 1870s has been secured. Notably, Manet’s Olympia, the succès de scandale at the Salon of 1865, has made its first voyage across the Atlantic.
Not so Olympia’s principal figure, Victorine Meurent, who posed for the naked courtesan shown coolly appraising the (unseen) client introduced by the Black attendant. It has very recently been discovered that Meurent, Manet’s favorite model and a leading professional cancan dancer, arrived in New York from Paris in September 1868 as part of a troupe of forty-eight artistes to perform in Offenbach’s operettas. She and her young child traveled steerage—the star of the show, the aptly named Rosalba Cancan, made the crossing in first class—and the company toured the United States for several months.
The ribald cancan, which had become popular in Paris in the 1850s, shocked New York audiences at the French Theater on Fifth Avenue, where in October 1868 Meurent and her fellow dancers staged Offenbach’s Geneviève de Brabant. According to the New-York Tribune, this was “the most revolting mass of filth that was ever shown on the boards of a reputable place of amusement in this city.” Beloved by the public, Mlle Victorine was considered “one of the most audacious can-can dancers of the troupe,” and the following ditty, inspired by her gymnastic performance, soon made the rounds: “Dancez, prancez kickez vous,/Vive l’amour for moi et you.”
Olympia failed to sell at Manet’s posthumous auction in February 1884—it did not reach its reserve of 10,000 francs—but in the summer of 1889 it was lent by Manet’s widow to the survey of French painting organized at the Palais des Beaux-Arts on the Champs de Mars as part of the celebrations of the centenary of the French Revolution, where Manet was represented by fifteen works. Galvanized by the rumor that there might be an American buyer interested in purchasing Olympia for 20,000 francs, in June 1889 John Singer Sargent encouraged his friend Claude Monet to launch a subscription to match the sum and offer the painting to the French state.1 Mary Cassatt informed Camille Pissarro that “an American had wished to buy the picture and it was to prevent its leaving France that the subscription was opened. I wish it had gone to America.” By January 1890 the sum of 19,415 francs had been raised. Sargent and Monet each contributed 1,000 francs; Pissarro and Pierre-Auguste Renoir could spare only 50 francs; Cassatt and Émile Zola refused to participate.
In his lengthy and at times tortuous correspondence with members of the French arts administration, Monet explained in a letter of February 1890, “We had witnessed with some anxiety the constant growth in the art market and the competition from purchasers coming from America.” While this may have been alarmist, the Metropolitan Museum of Art had acquired its first paintings by Manet—Boy with a Sword (1861) and Young Lady in 1866 (1866)—as gifts from the silver magnate and New York entrepreneur Erwin Davis the previous year.2 While the director of the Beaux-Arts could not guarantee that Olympia would enter the Louvre—it finally did so only in 1934—on November 17, 1890, the painting was accepted for the Musée du Luxembourg, which showed the work of living French artists and those who had been dead for less than ten years. That same year Jean-François Millet’s Angelus sold at auction for 750,000 francs.
“Manet/Degas” and its excellent catalog demonstrate the affinities and commonalities in the work of the two artists and illuminate their shared ambition to create a new language of modern art, with a repertory of new subjects. Both men hailed from prosperous, generally supportive families—Manet’s father was a high-ranking magistrate, Degas’s a banker—and as eldest sons neither was expected to become a professional painter. Even so, as teenagers in the 1850s both frequented the Louvre: Manet with his uncle, Degas in the company of his father, who was unfailingly encouraging. Manet’s parents, initially less so, served as the sitters for the double portrait shown at the Salon of 1861—a friend of the family spitefully compared them to “a pair of concierges”—and after the death of her husband in 1862, Manet’s mother offered her son her unwavering moral and financial assistance.3
Manet and Degas disdained the pedagogy offered by the École des Beaux-Arts—Degas was enrolled briefly in April 1855—yet both pursued training very similar to that offered by the École to aspiring history painters, an avocation Manet claimed to despise. They studied in the ateliers of well-regarded and relatively successful artists, drew from live models, copied works in the Louvre and the Bibliothèque Impériale, and traveled to Italy to gain firsthand knowledge of the Renaissance masters, thereby informally following a curriculum similar to that pursued by Prix de Rome winners. It was only in late 1861 or early 1862 that Manet, whose Spanish Singer had made something of a splash at the Salon of 1861, first encountered Degas in the Louvre copying the Portrait of the Infanta Margarita Teresa, then attributed to Velázquez (now considered to be by Velázquez and his workshop), directly onto a copperplate. Shocked and impressed, Manet—who had also made an etching after this picture—confided, “How audacious of you to etch that way, without any preliminary drawing, I would not dare to do the same!”
It is important to remember that by the mid-1860s, and particularly after the notoriety of Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia, Manet was something of an enfant terrible in the Parisian art world. Degas later recalled that “he is better known than Garibaldi.” For both young artists in the 1860s—and in Manet’s case, this remained true for the rest of his career—the annual Paris Salon held at the Palais de l’Industrie, generally between May 1 and June 15, was the principal arena in which to exhibit. Each winter and spring Manet assiduously prepared large figural compositions, striking in their frontality, for the Salon jury’s inspection; he was determined that they would call attention to themselves in the crowded spaces of the exhibition hall. He treated a fairly conventional repertory of sacred and profane subjects, portraits and genre scenes, but in an uncompromising, disruptive manner, abandoning traditional chiaroscuro, eliminating half-tones, applying his paint in unblended patches of color. His annual submissions to the Salon were eagerly anticipated, he presided over a coterie of younger artists at the Café Guerbois on the avenue de Clichy, and he was hailed as the leader of a new school of modern painting.
By contrast, Degas’s complex and often inscrutable entries to the Salons of the 1860s generally passed unnoticed. Accepted at the Salon of 1866, his Scene from the Steeplechase: The Fallen Jockey—reworked on two later occasions—presents a fugitive, evanescent scene, ambiguous in its drama despite its monumentality. An anonymous critic noted, “Like the jockey, this painter is not yet entirely familiar with his horse.” Even more dispiriting, Degas’s magnificent Family Portrait (The Bellelli Family) (1858–1869)—beautifully restored in 2022—was relegated to a high spot in one of the outermost galleries of the Palais de l’Industrie at the Salon of 1867 and ignored by the critics. His friend Daniel Halévy recounted the story of Degas’s father telling Degas that he had seen a “truly remarkable portrait” hanging high up in the Salon and asking him if he knew who had painted it. “This was one of the great pleasures of his life.”4
The Bellelli Family is considerably larger than Manet’s Olympia. In its rigorous symmetries and disturbing psychology, it might well have been expected to dominate the gallery in which it was shown at the Salon, as it does in the Met exhibition. Conceived in Florence over a period of several months in 1858, it portrays Degas’s aunt Laura and her daughters Giovanna and Giulia in mourning dress on their return from Naples after attending to the dying patriarch, Hilaire Degas. Having made a series of exquisite preparatory studies, as was his practice, Degas embarked upon the painting in December 1858, but nine years elapsed before it was completed in his studio in Paris. (He continued to work on it after the Salon of 1867.) Despite its grandeur and poignancy, this is a historical portrait, done from memory. The tension and disdain between Laura and her philandering husband, Gennaro, are still palpable, even though by the time Degas exhibited the portrait at the Salon his uncle had been dead for three years and his little cousins would soon become young married ladies.
For Degas, in the 1860s the Salon was an uncongenial venue. By contrast, Manet organized his production to accommodate the exigencies of this challenging but essential public space, while missing no opportunity also to exhibit in private and commercial galleries in Paris and beyond. Close to Manet in age and social standing, with an overlapping network of friends and acquaintances, Degas was clearly not among his disciples. He made no appearance in Henri Fantin-Latour’s celebrated group portrait, A Studio at Les Batignolles, shown at the Salon of 1870, in which Monet, Renoir, and Frédéric Bazille all vie for Manet’s attention. Nor was he included in Bazille’s Studio in the Rue Condamine (1870), where Manet offers instruction and encouragement to the same group of young Turks.
Neither acolyte nor disciple, and still little known beyond a select cohort, Degas may nonetheless have considered himself Manet’s junior partner in the joint enterprise to reform painting. By 1868 the two men had drawn closer. That year Degas made at least eight drawings and prints of Manet, one of the most affectionate of which, the Musée d’Orsay’s Édouard Manet, possibly a preparatory study for a never-completed portrait, was done on pink wove paper that has faded over time. If you look closely at the edges of this drawing as well as those of the Met’s Édouard Manet, Seated, Right Profile (circa 1868), you will be able to imagine the original Florentine splendor of the paper. Manet is not known to have drawn or painted a single study of Degas, although he included him, top-hatted and from behind, as a spectator in The Races in the Bois de Boulogne (1872).
While there was certainly mutual esteem and admiration, even affection, between the two men, their friendship was not without its rivalries and darker side. It seems likely that it was from Degas’s family, who employed him after 1867 as a banker’s clerk, that fifteen-year-old Léonard Édouard Koëlla Leenhoff, Manet’s frequent model, learned who his mother was. Léon had been presented as a younger brother of the Dutch pianist and piano teacher Suzanne Leenhoff, whom Manet had married in October 1863. Léon was in fact her son, born out of wedlock after, most plausibly, a liaison with Gustave-Adolphe Koëlla, from a family of musical prodigies from Zurich.
In 1868 Manet took offense at Degas’s portrayal of Suzanne playing the piano in a white dress in Monsieur and Madame Édouard Manet; he may also have been disturbed by the ungainly pose in which he himself was shown. Apparently insulted that Degas had painted his wife without first seeking his permission, Manet cut out most of the section in which Suzanne appeared. Degas, in fury, took back the mutilated canvas and decades later restored the painting to its horizontal format, but without repainting the excised figure. Degas’s contested representation nonetheless seems to have inspired Manet’s more elegant portrayal of Suzanne, formally attired, at the piano in the same paneled room. By the summer of 1868 amity was restored, and Manet was complaining to Fantin-Latour that Degas had refused to join him on a trip to London to promote their paintings to the city’s art dealers.
While both artists were fervent patriots and served in the Garde Nationale as volunteer gunners for the artillery during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870—in November they saw active service in the Battle of Champigny—Manet was always more progressive than Degas in his politics and affiliations. (His republican sympathies had developed during his teenage years.) In March and April 1863 Manet participated in the sale organized by the recently founded Société des Aquafortistes to assist unemployed cotton workers affected by the “cotton famine” brought about by the American Civil War. The following summer, in the shop window of a dealer’s gallery he exhibited a stark and commanding marine painting, The Battle of the “Kearsarge” and the “Alabama,” commemorating the victory of the Union corvette over the larger and statelier Confederate vessel, which had taken place off the coast of Normandy in June 1864. This was Manet’s first canvas inspired by contemporary politics.
Degas had many relatives in New Orleans whose wealth derived from the cultivation and sale of cotton and whose allegiances were firmly aligned with the Confederacy. His mother’s dowry had been secured in part by the sale of an enslaved person; his uncle Michel Musson had owned seven enslaved people before the outbreak of the Civil War; another uncle had attempted to enlist Napoleon III’s support for the Confederacy in an open letter justifying slavery, published in 1862. Traveling to New Orleans for almost six months with his brother René during Reconstruction, Degas produced the masterful A Cotton Office in New Orleans (1873)—his first painting acquired by a French museum—in which Musson is portrayed seated in the foreground, assessing the quality of his family’s product. Upon his arrival in Louisiana, Degas had confided to the Danish artist Lorenz Frølich how struck he was by “the contrast between the offices that are so active and well managed, and the immensity of the black animal force [upon which they depend].” There is not the slightest suggestion of any such tension—or inequity—in Degas’s meticulous depiction of this well-regulated, masculine sphere, in which at least fifteen men go about their daily professional routines in relaxed and companionable concentration.
After 1870, in the early years of the Third Republic, the Salon became less hospitable for practitioners of the New Painting. There now existed a small but promising commercial market for their work—in 1872 the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel acquired twenty-four paintings by Manet for the princely sum of 35,000 francs (he also bought three works by Degas at far more modest prices)—and in December 1873 the group of artists who came to be known as the Impressionists, with Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, and Degas leading the charge, established the Société Anonyme des Artistes, which boycotted the Salon and organized nonjuried group exhibitions at which works were available for sale. The inaugural exhibition of this artist cooperative took place on April 15, 1874, in the photographer Nadar’s studio at 35 boulevard des Capucines.
Manet steadfastly refused to participate, although as late as April 6 Degas was confident that he could be persuaded to change his mind. (“Manet, riled up by Fantin and his own self-induced panic, still refuses to join us; but as yet nothing seems to be definitively settled.”) Manet submitted four works to the Salon of 1874—two of which were rejected—and Degas expressed his frustration to the painter James Tissot: “I believe Manet to be infinitely more vain than intelligent.” While resisting Degas’s blandishments, Manet lent Berthe Morisot’s Hide and Seek (1873) to the inaugural exhibition and continued to lend works to subsequent shows. He also encouraged collectors such as Théodore Duret and journalists such as Albert Wolff to take an interest in the work of the Impressionists, a term Degas always disliked and refused to use.
Notwithstanding Manet’s commitment to the Salon and his determination to gain recognition and honors from the state—when he congratulated their mutual friend the Italian painter Giuseppe De Nittis on being awarded the Légion d’honneur in 1878, Degas scoffed, “Now I see how bourgeois you really are”5—after 1870 his style developed in alignment with the coloristic innovations of Monet and Renoir. As Philippe Burty, the fine critic and early champion of the Impressionists, noted, Manet’s style of painting was “at once summary and energetic.” A crypto-Impressionist painting of Parisian leisure such as Boating, painted in 1874 but not exhibited until the Salon of 1879, demonstrates Manet’s receptiveness to the heightened palette and visible brushwork championed by his younger colleagues. Degas, by contrast, thoroughly disavowed plein air painting and tackled beach scenes and landscapes only occasionally. The racetrack was the single congenial outdoor space for him. As he noted to a friend during a visit to Étretat in the summer of 1882, “The weather is beautiful, but more Monet than my eyes can stand.”
Festooned on the Met’s façade at the inauguration of the exhibition was a banner of Degas’s In a Café (The Absinthe Drinker) (1875–1876) alongside Manet’s Plum Brandy (circa 1877), two celebrated masterworks of the New Painting modeled by the actress Ellen Andrée, who is shown inebriated in both. Given this juxtaposition, and the many others that punctuate the display—as we enter we are greeted by Manet’s unfinished self-portrait of circa 1878–1879, in which he presents himself painting with his left hand, next to Degas’s intimidating self-portrait of 1855, in which the twenty-one-year-old announces himself as an acolyte of Ingres and holds his porte-crayon in the correct hand—it might be thought that one of the aims of the exhibition is to demonstrate how these two artists responded to each other’s work and the degree to which they monitored each other’s production. But the relationship between Manet and Degas is unlike that of Jean-Honoré Fragonard and Hubert Robert crafting a new style of drawing side by side in Rome in the early 1760s or Picasso and Braque forging the language of Cubism together between 1908 and 1914. Despite their affinities, Manet and Degas had notably different temperaments, ambitions, and sensibilities.
One of the great pleasures of the exhibition is to see how completely Manet possesses and dominates modern-life subjects introduced around 1870, just as he had the traditional genres in the 1860s. His portraiture and figure painting pulsate with energy and sexual vigor; his treatment of milliners, Parisiennes, jockeys, and barmaids is unfettered and forthright. By contrast, in his genre painting and portraiture Degas is more elusive and introspective, even though many of his portraits communicate great tenderness and sympathy. Whereas Manet’s portraits and paintings of Berthe Morisot convey desire and sensuality, Degas’s exquisite suite of portraits of her sister Yves (Madame Théodore Gobillard) maintains a far more respectful distance. Only in his monotypes and pastels of the brothel does Degas reveal an unexpected carnality and pungency.
By contrast to Manet, Degas is oblique, at times repressed, and occasionally self-flagellating. This is borne out in one of the most revealing (and unexpected) pairings in the exhibition: Manet’s Nana (1877; see illustration on page 84) with Degas’s Interior (1868–1869; see illustration below), two chefs d’oeuvre absolus. Manet worked on Nana during the winter of 1876–1877 as a candidate for the Salon, from which it was rejected. The character of Nana had been introduced in the last installment of Zola’s L’Assommoir, published in the autumn of 1876. She was the “red-haired and fresh” eighteen-year-old daughter of the laundress Gervaise Macquart and her alcoholic, violent husband, the roofer Coupeau. Nana leaves home as soon as she can to begin a career as a courtesan, “spending hours in her chemise before the bit of looking glass hanging above the bureau.”
Zola’s Nana was published serially only in October 1879, two and a half years after Manet had exhibited his painting in Giroux’s shop on the boulevard des Capucines, where it caused a scandal. For his less emasculating and intimidating successor to Olympia, Manet had used the services of the forty-six-year-old actress and courtesan Henriette Hauser, known as Citron, the mistress of the exiled Prince William of Orange. With her embroidered hose, her resplendent undergarments, and the lascivious articles of her toilette, Manet’s heroine exudes confidence, energy, and agency. We hardly notice her protector in formal evening attire, seated on the canapé at right, who struggles to keep his place in the picture.
Painted eight years earlier, Degas’s Interior—the title he gave to the work when he consigned it for sale in June 1905—had also been known as The Rape, according to Degas’s first biographer, Paul-André Lemoisne. (In 1897 Degas referred to it simply as “my genre painting.”) In a tidy but modest bedroom, a fully dressed, bearded man stands in the shadows against the door, hands in his pockets and a glowering expression on his face. In evident distress, a half-dressed young woman weeps as she huddles against the armchair. (Note her tiny turquoise earring.) A lamp in the center of the composition provides the sole source of light, which illuminates the sewing box, the woman’s bare shoulder, and her white undergarments. Her black bonnet rests on the immaculately made bed, and her dress is draped over the iron bedstead. In a tour de force of literary and archival sleuthing, Theodore Reff identified the scene as illustrating an episode from Zola’s novel Thérèse Raquin, issued serially in late 1867. He proposed that Degas chose the moment where the painter Laurent, who had conspired with his lover Thérèse to murder her husband, Camille Raquin, returns as planned after a year’s absence to celebrate their wedding night. He stands silently at the door while Thérèse, her back to him, is lost in thought.
As persuasive as Reff’s discovery is, seeing Degas’s Interior alongside Manet’s Nana prompts speculations of a different order. The tense posture of the bearded man with his hands in his pockets recalls Degas’s graphite and ink-wash drawing of Manet sporting a full beard that dates from the same time. In Interior the top hat barely visible on the commode in the background at left and the flimsy corset thrown onto the rug by the bed at right reference the same attributes of seduction so brazenly celebrated in Manet’s Nana. In Degas’s genre painting might we be witnessing a sordid rendezvous in a maison de passe rather than the long-awaited, if doomed, reunion in a room made “coquettish…a nest for young, fresh love,” as described in Thérèse Raquin? At the very least, the contrast between Degas’s traumatic, guilt-ridden encounter and Manet’s frank celebration of sexual congress offers a pictorial synecdoche that resonates throughout this absorbing, magisterial exhibition.
One of the best chronologies of Monet’s successful campaign to purchase Olympia is to be found in Richard Ormond and Elaine Kilmurray, John Singer Sargent: Figures and Landscapes, 1883–1899 (London: Paul Mellon Centre, 2010), pp. 57–59, 70–71. See also the “Dossier de l’Olympia” in Gustave Geffroy, Claude Monet: sa vie, son temps, son oeuvre (Paris: G. Crès et cie, 1922). ↩
Erwin Davis (1831–circa 1902), an unscrupulous businessman and the somewhat eccentric patron and benefactor of the American painter J. Alden Weir, had placed his entire collection on sale at Chickering Hall at 130 Fifth Avenue on March 19–20, 1889. (This was New York’s premier concert hall, which had also served as the venue for Oscar Wilde’s sold-out lecture on January 9, 1882.) The foreword to the Davis auction catalog was provided by the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel. On the sale’s second evening, many of the modern paintings—including Manet’s Boy with a Sword and Feeding the Parrot (as Young Lady in 1866 was then known)—were acquired by E.R. Leland, “a mysterious individual with a bald head, a gray mustache, a pair of eyeglasses and a Roman nose,” acting as Davis’s agent. Leland bid $6,700 and $1,300 for the two Manets; they were then withdrawn from the sale and immediately offered as gifts to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Details were reported in the New York press. On March 21, 1889, The Evening Sun led with the headline: “A ‘Cooked’ Sale. Erwin Davis paid $125,000 for his Own Pictures.” Davis also bought back Jules Bastien-Lepage’s Joan of Arc for $23,900; this too was donated to the Met. ↩
The anecdote is reported in Jacques-Émile Blanche, “Notes sur Manet,” in Essais et portraits (Paris: Dorbon-Ainé, 1912), p. 153. Blanche did not share this opinion of the portrait, which he had heard from a “vieille amie de Madame Manet,” noting, “Pourtant cela me semblait très beau—à moi!” ↩
We might question the veracity of this endearing story, since in the 1860s Degas’s father and brother monitored Edgar’s progress and wrote frequently to their relatives in New Orleans about how hard “our Raphael” was working (without mentioning any specific compositions). It would seem unlikely that members of his family did not visit Degas in his studio on the rue Laval, which he had rented from October 1859, and in which he completed this large canvas in the winter of 1866–1867. ↩
The anecdote was recounted in De Nittis’s memoirs. See the French edition of the exhibition catalog: Stéphane Guégan and Isolde Pludermacher, Manet/Degas (Musée d’Orsay/Gallimard, 2023), p. 26. ↩