Studying Édouard Manet

October 18, 2010

I’ve been preoccupied the last few days with studying the 19th century French artist Édouard Manet. One of the things about his work that I picked up on right from the beginning was that he painted his backgrounds like stage backdrops. By that I mean literally what appears to be a falsely painted set scrim that hangs behind the main figure or center of attention. This could be anything from the forest scene in “Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe” (1863) to the monochromatic backdrop that he uses in many of his full figure portraits, like “The Fifer” (1866.) He’s presenting actors in staged settings. His method of applying paint also helped flatten the space with its patchy modulation, and other subjects such as still-lifes and outdoor scenes were also presented this way. Once I understood this, his work began to make more sense to me. It’s important to see his works in person whenever possible. Reproductions often dissolve the subtleties of his brushwork as can be seen in the detail above.

In paintings of the 1870s his brushstrokes became more loosely and rapidly applied, attributed to either influence from studying Franz Hals, or from his relationships with other artists like Monet and Degas. I believe it mostly just evolved on its own since you can see this technique appear in earlier works as in this detail above from his painting “Music in the Tuileries Garden” (1862.) Manet left that earlier academic style behind by making his color palette brighter and more saturated. Instead of taking the work to a controlled and polished level, they often look like studies (what Salon painters would call “esquisse.”) Most of them are in fact sketches, and were never shown in public. Examine “Monet and his Wife in His Floating Studio” from 1874 and “Chez le père Lathuille” from 1879. The latter painting was entered into the Salon of 1880 and has a more controlled appearance.

Manet spent most of his career trying to appeal to the Paris Salon jury to exhibit his paintings, but only a few were ever accepted. The annual Salon show was the major artistic event that showcased traditional academic works by French artists from which would come public commissions, state purchases, and notoriety. Without their endorsement any artistic success was impossible at that time.
Wiki Link about the Salon
Wiki Link about Pris du Rome

Reading about his career the main thing that impressed me was his artistic integrity. The Salon was the way to achieve worldwide fame, but he insisted on getting there on his terms. He knew what they wanted to see in academic techniques and subject matter and he had the training to give them exactly that, but he made his work to suit himself and expected the Salon to come to him rather than paint their way. He was a determined fellow, despite the obstacles he faced with public appreciation of his work. However, after his death his widow was able to sell all the remaining works from his studio. Exposition Universelle of 1889 declared the rank of French artists who had best flourished since the Revolution. Manet was on that list, and several of his paintings were hung alongside other great artists of the 19th century.
Reference Link 1
Reference Link 2

Books Researched:
“Manet’s Modernism” by Michael Fried
“Manet and the French Impressionists” by Theodore Duret
“Manet: The First of the Moderns” by Gilles Neret
“Inspiring Impressionism…” edited by Ann Dumas
“Painting Methods of the Impressionists” by Bernard Dunstan


One comment

  1. Correction regarding Manet and the Salon:
    After re-reading the Duret book (see the link above) it appears that most of the paintings Manet submitted to the Salon were actually accepted. The poor reaction to the work wasn’t from not getting into the shows but happened while they were on exhibit. They typically receieved scorn and ridicule from the press and public. Duret was a close friend of Manet and the executor of his estate when he died.

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