Writers, prostitutes, poets, absinthe drinkers, ragpickers and politicians: inside Manet’s world
The great painters subjects were the people of Paris, and his portraits a comment on society
Entering through the Palladian portals of Burlington House, home of the Royal Academy of Arts, London, past the statue of Sir Joshua Reynolds, hangs a banner showing Édouard Manet’s portrait, Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets . Paradoxically, the most radical artist of the 19th century craved official recognition – nothing would have given Manet greater pleasure than this exhibition, in the heart of the academy.
Gustave Courbet was the iconoclast of representational art, smashing through the barrier of subject matter. Proper subject matter – historical, religious, mythological – was set by the academies, as if in direct line of descent from the Renaissance and the Reformation, if not Greece and Rome. Suddenly, in 1850, Courbet’s
A Burial At Ornans
, as Sarah Faunce sees it, “thrust itself into the grand tradition of history painting, like an upstart in dirty boots crashing a genteel party, and in terms of that tradition it was of course found wanting”.
But Manet’s modernist aesthetic was so far ahead of Courbet’s that his work gave rise to vituperation. His Olympia (1863) was described as “the Hottentot venus with the black cat exposed completely naked on her bed like a corpse on the counters of the morgue”. Besides being a complex visual treatise on French sexuality, Olympia was a portrait of Victorine Meurent, herself a singer, painter and model, who also appears in the most radical of Manet’s paintings, Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe .
Manet used the specificity of the portrait to comment on society, and this exhibition focuses on his portraits as never before. Unfortunately, Olympia and A Bar at the Folies-Bergère – paintings that are also portraits – are missing from the exhibition. If the portrait form is the carrier of meaning, their absence is a significant lacuna.
That said, viewing Manet’s portraits to understand his Paris and its people is valid. In his review of the salon of 1846, the poet and critic Charles Baudelaire declared: “The spectacle of elegant life and of the thousands of floating existences which drift about in the underworld of a big city – criminals and kept women . . . all prove that we have only to open our eyes to know our heroism.” Baudelaire and Manet were seduced by the new types of city dwellers, attuned to what they understood as the ironic heroism of modernity.
In his search for the “painter of modern life”, Baudelaire mused on the tensions between tradition and modernity. From 1853, the demolition of huge swathes of Paris, and the construction of a new city under Georges Haussmann, was in train. With the city’s history of bloody revolutions – 1789, 1848, 1871 – the authorities were determined to redesign with surveillance in mind. Large boulevards would put paid to anti-authoritarian behaviour, while the new 85 miles of wide, straight streets created a culture of consumerism and capitalism.