Published  05/03/2013

Manet: Portraying Life

Manet: Portraying Life

Royal Academy of Arts, London
26 January–14 April 2013


Painting’s relationship with the written word is at best fraught with complication. Over determinate and dependent upon linear structure words often fail to do justice to the playfulness and fragile harmonies of the visual. The complex tying together of propositions, the psychological nuances and the suspension of time that characterise our experience of painting is so frequently undone by the ordered succession of the written word. Rarely is this more obvious than in the case of Edouard Manet.

Standing as he does at a bridge between the aesthetic concerns of the preceding centuries and the shattering transformations that followed, Manet has had the mixed fortune of gathering words like few others. Launching his exhibiting career in the early 1860s his output rapidly became a dividing line upon which the knives of the Parisian literati were sharpened. Ridiculed and attacked by the critical establishment from the off, by the end of the decade Zola, Baudelaire and Duranty had all risen to his defence.

Over the intervening 150 years Manet has continued to gather written interpreters; from Greenberg to Fried; Matisse to Foucault. His work has been viewed as realist, modernist, and historicist, psychologically insightful and formally self-sufficient. Yet before his works it becomes obvious that he is all and none of these things – a master of mystery and contradiction we are lulled into a staccato rhythm of appreciation and bafflement, indecision and occasionally blissful harmony. It is something that only the best modernist painting can achieve.

Given the failure of historical infighting to stick to the experience of the work it is perhaps to be celebrated that the Royal Academy exhibition has adopted so neutral a position. Working under the title of Portraying Life it seems unlikely that the exhibition or the catalogue will do much to sway the overwhelming tide of scholarship.1 For it is a truism borne out by Manet’s repeated insistence upon the need for a living subject and his repeated treatment of the individuals and society around him that he did “portray life”. But the curators and catalogue writers have failed to make the case for what exactly it was about his portrayal that marked him out.

The 50 odd works on display, however, do rather a good job themselves, even if the decision to arrange them by loosely grouped subjects rather than chronology seems at best arbitrary (family; writers and artists; status portraits; and his favoured model from the 1860s Victorine Meurent, define the succession of the rooms). In an age in which professional curators vie for increasingly novel and cutting edge approaches it is rare and almost welcome to find an exhibition that proposes so little. If, during the comparative lull of the rooms of “status portraits” (why did they include quite so many!) we are left with the impression that perhaps Manet was better at presenting those he was close to, the startling strength of the final room in which he addresses his new model, more than undermines the impression that his personal relation to his subjects was of any definitive importance.

In proposing so little the curators save us from the anxious resistance to indoctrination that accompanies many current exhibitions and in a sense leave us free to contemplate the works on their own merit (if we succeed in overcoming the crowds and inane conversations that cling to Royal Academy exhibitions like fog). But the disruption of chronology has another, perhaps less welcome effect. For it undermines the somewhat complex issues of development that characterise Manet’s career and, in so doing, denies us some important points of access to the art.

A work like La Pêche (c1862-3) is, in a strange way, one of the works that benefits most from the loose faux psychological intrigue of the thematic presentation. It nonetheless also highlights its faults. Coming in the first room of the exhibition, which presents Manet’s paintings of family, (and along with the last room is undoubtedly one of the very strongest); it falls, as chance would have it, quite neatly into a chronological order. More crucially, however, it is one of the works whose content seems to be inescapably bound up in personal biography.

Painted, by most reckonings, around or about the time of Manet’s marriage to Katherine Leenhoff (his mistress for ten years previous) it is a thoroughly strange and awkward landscape. Manet and Katherine stand frontally in the right foreground before a field of unsatisfactory green and blue washes. Dressed in 17th-century Dutch attire, they are separated from the rising field by a river. On the far bank sits Léon Leenhoff (variously considered to be Manet’s son or half-brother, but unanimously accepted as Katherine’s illegitimate son). Three (slightly oversized) fishermen man a boat near the centre of the composition – their prominence masked by shadowy light and their blurred definition.

There are further shadows across Manet and Katherine’s faces. This set off against the sharp contours and brightly lit high-toned colours of their clothes. This sharpness is picked up by a pert dog standing slightly to the left of the couple but also by the hat of one of the fishermen and the church spire on the horizon, all of which stand out against the ill-defined glazes around them. Manet and Katherine look as though they are turning in the direction of the dog or beyond him to Léon – a motion reinforced by Manet’s gesture (to us or to the dog?). The dog himself however, turns his head towards what look to be a group of woodland nymphs in the right middle ground). Apart from Manet and Katherine the figures remain shrouded in the thick laden brush strokes of their execution.

It is, in short, a work bristling with contrary propositions; charged but elusive blurs against sharp features, complex plays of light and shadow, loose washes of green against bright shocks of colour and an equally disjointed melée of characters, costumes and gestures. It is a work that nonetheless lures us into its awkward complexities – forcing us to explore often-competing hypotheses with wonder. The most convincing reconstruction would seem to be that it offers some sort of reference to Manet’s 1863 marriage and its relation to Léon. But is he suggesting that the marriage (induced largely through the steeple) is righting the wrongs of his son’s illegitimacy? Is that dog pointing towards his persistent, or fading, desire for other women (or are those nymphs mere fantasy)? Can the fishermen’s presence be accounted for by the proximity of the French words Pêche (fish) and Pècher (to sin)? Despite our identification of broad themes, therefore, we remain in search of a cohesive interpretation. Even as we seem to hone in on answers, more questions arise.

Perhaps understandably Art Historians have tended to shy away from these largely conjectural positions. Less immediately understandable, however, is how they have turned their focus upon a whole other body of complications – in the form of the rich iconographical references included in the work. For it seems fairly certain that much of the composition, the rainbow and the totality of the dog are lifted directly from Rubens, whilst other aspects (such as the boat and the fishermen) derive from Carracci. The steeple has been linked to Constable (a link I was myself drawn towards – considering Constable’s popularity in 19th-century France and the repetition of the rainbow and steeple motif in Salisbury Cathedral; but what would Constable make of that grass!).

In the context of the exhibition – and to some extent the work itself – these references are largely overlooked as incidental. What is proposed as crucial is that Manet was portraying figures of his family within a constructed scene. In the context of Manet’s evolution as a painter, however, these iconographic references are much more important, and they abound across the works at the Royal Academy. Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe, for example, (unfortunately represented here by the secondary Courtauld version) lifts figures from Titian’s Fête Champêtre and poses from Raphael’s Triumph of Paris, as well as possessing broad affinities with Watteau, and with Courbet’s Ladies on the Banks of the Seine (links which would undoubtedly have been more marked at the time of its first display). Music at the Tuileries (1862), is often discussed in terms of its relation to The Little Cavaliers (then thought to be by Velasquez, but would also seem to be undeniably bound to Courbet’s Burial at Ornans. Luncheon in the Studio (1868), takes an overlapping knife and some oysters from Chardin’s Ray, and a general disposition from Vermeer. The Tragic Actor (1866), is totally infused with Velasquez’s treatment of a similar subject (which Manet in 1865 described as the Spanish Master’s finest work). Vermeer’s cherries appear in The Street Singer, and the wandering Dutch/Spanish heritage of those peeled lemons in the Portrait of Zacharie Astruc and The Luncheon seems beyond doubt.

Scattered as they are as sparse moments of iconography in wall labels across the exhibition, these references appear as anachronistic art history and of little importance to the visual experience of the work. But, in fact, (and herein lies the saving grace of the pen), they are references which can lead us to a much more complete understanding of the Manet’s work. For they are characteristic of a very specific conception of history and pictorial practice which underpinned Manet’s oeuvre.

Whilst reference to previous artists abound throughout art history (from Titian’s famed winks to Michelangelo to Delacroix’s citations of Rubens) the attempts to bridge such complex and divergent references (as say, Raphael, Titian and Courbet) within the context of single work – and to do so with such transparency, time and time again, in short succession, as Manet did throughout the early 1860s – implies a novelty. It is a practice which, as Michael Fried has argued, points towards an emergent concept of universality across European art, and equally importantly pushes for a direct equation of modern scenes with the cannon’s of high art.2 But is also symptomatic of a wider tendency towards what could be seen as an objectification of history (or at least the history of art). For in accessing diverse historical precedents, not so much as sources of stylistic influence, but as a fixed stock of compositional assertions to be used in jarring conjunction, Manet reveals his difference from preceding generations.

Fascinating as are the roots of this approach within the wider intellectual tradition of the 19th century, more immediately pressing are the means by which it impacted on Manet’s work.3 For in leaving his diverse references so awkwardly rendered, so startlingly overt, Manet moves towards the destruction of what we might call the objective pictorial certainties of his own paintings. The staccato guessing games that define our relation to Manet’s work derive in no small part from the absence of a cohesive authorial placement in works, which at once reference and draw attention to their reference. For the effect of Manet’s mode of pictorial insertions – whether conscious or not – is to interject his own artistic process forcefully between the viewer and the subject. Cezanne’s inclusion of himself within his own Modern Olympia seems a near cartoonish illustration of this point.

If an awkwardness of iconography is most manifest in early works like La Pêche, Dejeuner Sur L’Herbe and Olympia (all 1862–63) a work like Luncheon in the Studio of 1868 shows the myriad ways in which Manet continued to press an assault on cohesion across his practice. The nominal subject of the painting once more is Léon – leaning back upon a sumptuously lit table cloth – attended by an oversized smoking man and a maid, all within a remarkably contrived interior setting.

To the boy’s right lie the oysters and provocatively placed knife which arrive direct from Chardin’s Ray; to his left an incongruous mix of armour which picks up the metallic glow of a jug the maid carries tentatively in her hands (just slightly outweighing the inelegance of the bathing cat). Closing in the composition to the boy’s right is a hanging picture that derives from Vermeer but which (along with the man) projects much too far forward spatially. To the left, in the background, the compelling plasticity of a white plant pot and the leaves of a rubber tree meet this projection. We are, also, and perhaps above all transfixed by the tight, three quarter length crop of Leon and his firm gaze – diagonally out, off the canvas and across the Royal Academy. But again this is set off against the blurred faces of the other figures and in particular the obscured gaze of the maid which seems to be levelled upon us – the spectator.

Here, therefore, the tensions in iconography are once more present, but within a composition much more clearly of Manet’s design their disruptive influence is limited to the strange artifice of conflicting interior elements. But the assertion of authorial presence is carried forwards elsewhere; in the heightened discordance generated by the varied handling of paint, the tight cropping and the extraordinary control of our access to the figures gazes. Whilst, none of these features (bar the cropping) are new to Manet’s oeuvre, The Luncheon highlights the means by which he continued his assault on pictorial cohesion. For where in La Pêche the strange shadowy blur of many of the figures could be in some senses accounted for by the cloud cover and in Olympia the absence of shadows could be recuperated by some form of full frontal lighting, here in The Luncheon the resolute plasticity of the plant pot against the lit but formless face of the maid, the contrasted gazes of the figures and the provocative discontinuities of the space all make us unmistakably aware of the painter’s orchestrating presence, even as the figures gazes force us to confront our position as a spectator.

It is here that we see how flawed the vision of Manet as a proto-Impressionist remains. For far from transmitting the painter’s perceptual experience of a witnessed scene, the alternating control of paint and definition is used in collaboration with the wider dissonances of the painting to direct and complicate our perceptual and psychological access. In leaving the means of control so visible and the assertions so multiply unresolved Manet forces us to acknowledge his own authorship, even as he leaves us reeling, unconvincingly for the traces of what he might be saying.

The startling position accorded to the physical assertions of paint in Manet’s work have led many to perceive him as a formalist with little or no concern for subject matter: “his system, his commitment, consists in taking large masses, patches set one beside the other, in different values… there is no question of aesthetics, beauty, moral feeling, intellectual appeal. In his eyes painting has nothing to do with that”, decried one contemporary critic, in fact broadly mirroring Emile Zola’s defences of Manet4. As we move around the exhibition there is much to tempt us to this view. We are frequently held in awe by the purely formal assertions of Manet’s paintings: the way in which Mme Manet at the Piano (1868), contrasts the compelling austerity of the primary plane with the cluttered tableau in the mirror; the forward looking traces of Matisse’s Red Room in the gorgeous self-sufficiency of the red patterned table cloth in the 1868 portrait of Zaccharie Astruc; the compelling plasticity of bowls in the Portrait of Emile Zola (1868), and the Boy Blowing Bubbles (1868); the play with the yellow of repeated lemon peels; the white of books’ pages; the fixing contrast of the black and white in the two figures of the Swallows (1873); or the blood lined cheeks against the obdurate foliage in Mme Manet in the Conservatory (1879).

Compelling as such formal characteristics remain; however, they too lead us away from the full impact of the work. Or rather to dwell upon them without acknowledging their part in the wider psychological experience of the paintings is to diminish Manet’s achievement. For even as he moves towards a style of frequently less jarring pictorial strategies through the 1870s, his work continues to exist on a boundary – his formalism inescapably entangled with the wider mysteries of our relations to the scene. It is this entanglement that first led me to Manet – via the black smudges on the face of the barmaid in the National Gallery’s Corner of a Café Concert (c1878–79), and the near totality of his masterwork, Bar of the Folies Bèrgere (1882).

Whilst both these works absence from the Royal Academy is regrettable the presence of Gare St Lazare, of 1873 provides a highly compelling endpoint. Here we are again confronted and evaded by gazes; we perceive our reflected presence in the model’s eyes and our total absence in the obscured face of the young girl’s blond head. Yet sharing in the young girl’s vista and alienated by the inscrutability of the model we feel both the power and the limitations of sight – our inescapable distance from the spectacles of the city pull against their absorbing force. The puppy’s sleeping eyelids are bound up in this, but push us further from certainty, tying in also with a general theme of youth, and the liminal and uncertain positioning of the model within this. Departing from these thematic questions we pass between the solid black of the rails and the sunlit white steam of the trains; the contrast of formal elements and represented forms; referents and references. The evident brushstrokes in the rear rustle against the startling precision of the girl’s earring. Wrapped up in Manet’s complexity we are in awe of his poetic harmonies. Transported through a scene of daily life to an eternally balanced irresolution, a meditation on the process of vision and the mechanics of painting at once bound to and detached from the portrayal.

Whilst not all of the works on display are so rich in psychological resonance and formal tension, these are the characteristics of Manet’s best work. It is to the credit of the curators that they have assembled so many of such moments. If the organisation of the exhibition does little to further our understanding of Manet’s means of portrayal through an exploration of his development, it at least allows us to confront the works without the fog of a dominating interpretation. And in doing so, the irresolution and conflict of Manet’s work shines through. As Duranty had it: “Time and time again he has given the public works that are most innovative, the most flawed, the most rife with excellence; works full of breath and intensity, a voice distinct from all others; works in which the most powerful expression is bound to clash with the uncertainties of an entirely new approach that lacks, as yet, a full means of embodiment and realization.”


1. Carol Armstrong’s essay on the influence of photography may provide a limited exception – though it too veers rather on the side of caution.

2. Michael Fried, Manet’s Sources, 1969, reproduced in Manet’s Modernism, 1998, New York, University of Chicago Press.

3. From Marx, or Michelet’s codification of historical models, to the evolution of a Museum, the emergence of art history as a discipline or the expanding international art market.

4. Manet, 1832–1883, Cachin, Françoise, Charles S. Moffett, and Juliet Wilson Bareau, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1983, pg 18.


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