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Edouard Manet (1832-83)

( Originally Published 1955 )



Precursor of French Impressionism. Manet's constant exploration of new modes of vision brought the first clear break with the Renaissance manner of presenting nature. His re-examination of the Old Masters made possible the advent of Impressionism, with which he associated himself intellectually. Of wealthy conservative background, a student for six years of the academician Couture, Manet seemed to be constantly seeking respectability for his painting, but instead he figured in some of the most sensational incidents of the nineteenth-century salons.

It was after considerable vacillation that this sophisticate entered Couture's studio. He was constantly at odds with his teacher because of his loose technique of painting, but from Couture he gained his exquisite handling of tones. This was augmented by study of the Venetians, Velazquez and the Dutch school, both in the Louvre and abroad. In 1859, however, his Absinthe Drinker was refused by the Salon and a private showing provoked much criticism. Apparently a public conditioned to Ingres' classically-derived style could not endure the stiff self-conscious poses and the sober, flatly silhouetted forms of Manet's art, and the concentration on painterly structure at the cost of story ran against recent Romantic tendencies. Even Courbet's canvases seemed narrative in comparison with this new art. His Spanish subjects of 1861, the Guitar Player, etc., were a success, but at the Salon des Refuses of 1863 he exhibited his Dejeuner sur 1'herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) and in 1865 his Olympia. Both provoked such scandal that in 1865 Manet retired to Spain in confusion.

Both these paintings had been studiously based on Renaissance prototypes. The Dejeuner in both form and mood was suggested to him while he was copying Giorgione's Concert in the Louvre. He worked on it for a year. The noncommital confrontation of nude women and clothed gentlemen in a park was too much for contemporary mores. And the concentration of the artist on the mode of painting to the point that the still life of discarded clothes competed in importance with the figures: this was unintelligible to public and critics. Then in the Olympia the hard profile of the nude body and the- insinuating form of the black cat came as a shock to Western art. Such papery forms, solid color areas and courtesan themes were familiar however in Japanese prints. These were just in vogue and Manet was to use them in 1868 in his portrait of Zola, who had come to his defense.

Manet became the rallying point for a group of artists at the Cafe Guerbois, out of which grew the Impressionist movement. He staged a one-man show at the Exposition of 1867, but with little success. The Franco-Prussian war intervened and then in 1873 he scored a triumph with the Bon Bock (Philadelphia), a Halsian picture, However, his style was already changing toward the fresh palette of the Impressionists. He never deserted the Salons to take part in their group exhibitions, nor did he accept fully the open-air painting, but such canvases as In the Boat (1874, Metropolitan) and Argenteuil (1875) used the new palette. At this time his work also shows the clipped composition of the Im.pressionists that seems to snatch a fragment out of real life. However, his forms remained fairly tactile, and in subject and treatment he owed more to Degas perhaps than to the other Impressionists. Scenes in restaurants and bistros culminated in the great masterpiece of his career, The Bar at the Folies Bergeres (London), exhibited the year before his death. In this he ,retreated somewhat from his Impressionism to the earlier pursuit of the delectable in painting. Our minds are muddled, our senses titillated by the curious perspective world that confronts us on the canvas. That it, and all art, is to be enjoyed and not understood, Manet tells us by sionists that seems to snatch a fragment out of real life. a vintage.



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