Édouard Manet: Master of the modernist era | Sunday Observer

Édouard Manet: Master of the modernist era

29 August, 2021

Édouard Manet, French painter

Born: January 23, 1832, Paris, France

Died: April 30, 1883, Paris, France

Édouard Manet, (born: January 23, 1832, Paris, France — died: April 30, 1883, Paris), was a French painter who broke new ground by defying traditional techniques of representation and by choosing subjects from the events and circumstances of his own time.

His ’Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe’ (Luncheon on the Grass), exhibited in 1863 at the Salon des Refusés, aroused the hostility of critics and the enthusiasm of the young painters who later formed the nucleus of the Impressionist group. His other notable works include Olympia (1863) and ’A Bar at the Folies-Bergère’ (1882).

Early life and works

Édouard was the son of Auguste Manet, the chief of personnel at the Ministry of Justice, and Eugénie-Désirée Fournier. From 1839 he was a day pupil at Canon Poiloup’s school in Vaugirard, where he studied French and the classics. From 1844 to 1848 he was a boarder at the Collège Rollin, then located near the Panthéon. A poor student, he was interested only in the special drawing course offered by the school.

Although his father wanted him to enroll in law school, Édouard could not be persuaded to do so. When his father refused to allow him to become a painter, he applied for the naval college but failed the entrance examination. He, therefore, embarked in December 1848 as an apprentice pilot on a transport vessel. Upon his return to France in June 1849, he failed the naval examination a second time, and his parents finally yielded to their son’s stubborn determination to become a painter.

In 1850 Manet entered the studio of the classical painter Thomas Couture. Despite fundamental differences between teacher and student, Manet was to owe to Couture a good grasp of drawing and pictorial technique.

In 1856, after six years with Couture, Manet set up a studio that he shared with Albert de Balleroy, a painter of military subjects. There he painted ’The Boy with Cherries’ (c. 1858) before moving to another studio, where he painted ’The Absinthe Drinker’ (1859). In 1856 he made short trips to The Netherlands, Germany, and Italy. Meanwhile, at the Louvre he copied paintings by Titian and Diego Velázquez and in 1857 made the acquaintance of the artist Henri Fantin-Latour, who was later to paint Manet’s portrait.

During this period, Manet also met the poet Charles Baudelaire, at whose suggestion he painted ’Music in the Tuileries Gardens’ (1862). The canvas, which was painted outdoors, seems to assemble the whole of Paris of the Second Empire—a smart, fashionable gathering composed chiefly of habitués of the Café Tortoni and of the Café Guerbois, which was the rendezvous of the Batignolles artists. As he created the work, passersby looked with curiosity at this elegantly dressed painter who set up his canvas and painted in the open air.

At the Salon of 1861, Manet exhibited ’Spanish Singer’ (1860), dubbed ‘Guitarero’ by the French man of letters Théophile Gautier, who praised it enthusiastically in the periodical ’Le Moniteur universel’.

Mature life and works

From 1862 to 1865 Manet took part in exhibitions organized by the Martinet Gallery. In 1863 Manet married Suzanne Leenhoff, a Dutch woman who had given him piano lessons and had given birth to his child before their marriage. That same year the jury of the Salon rejected his ’Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe’, a work whose technique was entirely revolutionary, and so Manet instead exhibited it at the Salon des Refusés (established to exhibit the many works rejected by the official Salon).

Although inspired by works of the Old Masters — Giorgione’s ’Pastoral Concert’ (c. 1510) and Raphael’s ’Judgment of Paris’ (c. 1517–20) — this large canvas aroused loud disapproval and began for Manet that “carnival notoriety” from which he would suffer for most of his career. His critics were offended by the presence of a naked woman in the company of two young men clothed in contemporary dress; rather than seeming a remote allegorical figure, the woman’s modernity made her nudity seem vulgar and even threatening. Critics were also upset by how these figures were depicted in a harsh, impersonal light and placed in a woodland setting whose perspective is distinctly unrealistic.

At the Salon of 1865, his painting ’Olympia’, created two years earlier, caused a scandal. The painting’s reclining female nude gazes brazenly at the viewer and is depicted in a harsh, brilliant light that obliterates interior modeling and turns her into an almost two-dimensional figure.

This contemporary odalisque — which the French statesman Georges Clemenceau was to install in the Louvre in 1907 — was called indecent by critics and the public. In his vexation, Manet left in August 1865 for Spain, but, disliking the food and frustrated by his total lack of knowledge of the language, he did not stay long. In Madrid he met Théodore Duret, who was later to be one of the first connoisseurs and champions of his work.

The following year, ’The Fife Player’ (1866), after having been rejected by the Salon jury under the pretext that its modeling was flat, was displayed along with others in Manet’s studio in Paris.

When a large number of his works were rejected for the Universal Exposition of 1867, Manet, in imitation of Gustave Courbet, who had the same idea, had a stall erected at the corner of the Place de l’Alma and the Avenue Montaigne, where in May he exhibited a group of works, including his paintings of toreadors and bullfights.

He showed about 50 paintings, but these were not received any more favourably than before. His work from this period was varied in character, but in general it seems to represent a greater concern with close relations of tone and complexities of illumination and atmosphere, sometimes exhibiting a freedom of handling comparable to that in ’Music in the Tuileries Gardens’.

Much impressed by the naturalism of Manet’s work, the young novelist Émile Zola undertook to praise it in a long and courageous article published in the ‘Revue du XIX e siècle’ of January 1, 1867. In the face of the hostility of the public, Zola saw Manet as representative of all artists of importance who begin by offending public opinion.

Manet expressed his gratitude in his portrait of Zola shown at the Salon of 1868. The next year Manet exhibited ’The Balcony’ (1868–69), in which there appeared for the first time — in the figure of the Spanish girl seated with her elbow on the railing — a portrait of the artist Berthe Morisot, whom he had met at the Louvre. From then on, Morisot, who was to become one of the leading female French Impressionists, was a frequent visitor to Manet’s studio. He painted a series of portraits of her, until her marriage to his brother Eugène Manet.

After the positive reviews published by Zola, Duret, and the art critic Louis-Édmond Duranty, Manet at the Salon of 1870 received an homage in paint, Fantin-Latour’s ’A Studio at Batignolles’, which served as a kind of manifesto on his behalf. This large canvas shows Manet painting, surrounded by those who were his defenders at the time: Zola, the painters Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, and Frédéric Bazille, and the sculptor Zacharie Astruc. The painting was caricatured in the ’Journal amusant’ under the title ’Jesus Painting Among His Disciples’.

During the Franco-German War (1870–71), Manet served as a staff lieutenant in the National Guard and witnessed the siege of Paris. In February 1871 he rejoined his family, returning to Paris shortly before the Commune.

His studio there was half-destroyed, but he had taken care to store his canvases in a safe place, and he found them intact. The art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel bought almost everything that Manet’s studio contained, paying 50,000 francs in the currency of the time. From about this time on, Manet and his friends met at the Café Nouvelle-Athènes, which had replaced the Guerbois. In 1872 he visited The Netherlands, where he was much influenced by the works of Frans Hals.

As a result Manet painted ’Le Bon Bock’ (1873; ’The Good Point’), which achieved considerable success at the Salon exhibition of 1873.

Later life and works

The year 1874 was chiefly notable for the development of Manet’s friendship with the young Impressionist painter Claude Monet, with whom he painted on the banks of the Seine (when they had first met in 1866, the relationship was rather cool). Manet painted his most luminous plein-air picture, ’Boating’ (1874), which was set in Le Petit Gennevilliers and depicted two figures seated in the sun in a boat. It was also at Argenteuil that Manet painted ’Monet Painting on His Studio Boat’ (1874). Although he was friendly with Monet and the other Impressionists, Manet would not participate in their independent exhibitions and continued to submit his paintings to the official Salon. When ’The Artist’ and ’Laundry’ were both rejected by the Salon in 1875, Manet exhibited them along with other paintings in his studio.

When painting ’Nana’ (1877), Manet was inspired by the character of a woman of the demimonde whom Zola first introduced in his novel ’L’Assommoir ’(1877; ’The Drunkard’); in that same year he painted ’Plum Brandy’, one of his major works, in which a solitary woman rests her elbow on the marble top of a café table. He followed these works with ’The Blonde with Bare Breasts’ (c. 1878), in which the pearl-white flesh tones gleam with light, and ’Chez le Père Lathuille’ (1879), another of Manet’s major works, set in a restaurant near the Café Guerbois in Clichy.

The latter depicts a coquette somewhat past her prime having lunch with her young lover in yet another of Manet’s bold attempts to portray controversial subject matter in a decidedly modern manner. From then on, Manet did a large number of pastels. In broad, determined strokes he captured the features of George Moore (1879), an Irish would-be painter and later novelist who often joined Manet and Edgar Degas at the Café Nouvelle-Athènes.

In 1880 Manet had a one-man exhibition at the offices of the periodical ’La Vie moderne’ (Modern Life), but his legs were already affected by a malady that was to prove fatal. In 1881 he rented a villa at Versailles, and, by the following year, with his illness progressing at an alarming pace, he went to stay in a villa at Rueil.

He took part in an important exhibition of French art that was held in London at Burlington House, and at the Salon he showed ’A Bar at the Folies-Bergère’ (1882), a daring composition that intensifies the exchange of glances between the image of the barmaid and the customer before her, allowing the viewer to stand in the customer’s place. Radical in its obliteration of the boundary between the viewer and what is viewed, the ’Bar’ was Manet’s last great contribution to the modern vision of painting. On April 6, 1883, after painting some roses and lilacs, Manet took to his bed. Gangrene developed in his left leg, which was subsequently amputated. He died not long after and was buried in the cemetery of Passy.

In January 1884 a posthumous exhibition of Manet’s work was held in the Salle de Melpomène of the École des Beaux-Arts. True to his admiration for the artist, Zola wrote the preface to the catalog. It was after this memorial exhibition that Manet’s paintings began to gain prominence.


Manet’s debut as a painter met with a critical resistance that did not abate until near the end of his career. Although the success of his memorial exhibition and the eventual critical acceptance of the Impressionists — with whom he was loosely affiliated — raised his profile by the end of the 19th century, it was not until the 20th century that his reputation was secured by art historians and critics.

Manet’s disregard for traditional modeling and perspective made a critical break with academic painting’s historical emphasis on illusionism. This flaunting of tradition and the official art establishment paved the way for the revolutionary work of the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.

Manet also influenced the path of much 19th and 20th-century art through his choice of subject matter. His focus on modern, urban subjects — which he presented in a straightforward, almost detached manner — distinguished him still more from the standards of the Salon, which generally favoured narrative and avoided the gritty realities of everyday life. Manet’s daring, unflinching approach to his painting and to the art world assured both him and his work a pivotal place in the history of modern art.