Sunday, 27 January 2013


“No one can be a painter unless he cares for painting above all else.” - Édouard Manet

Édouard Manet was born in Paris, France, on January 23, 1832, to Auguste Édouard Manet and Eugénie Désirée Manet. Manet’s mother was an artistic woman who made sure that Édouard and his two brothers took piano lessons. His father, an official at the Ministry of Justice, expected his son to study law and was opposed to the idea of him becoming a painter. It was decided that Édouard would join the navy, and at the age of sixteen he sailed to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on a training vessel. Upon his return he failed to pass the navy’s entrance examination. His father finally gave in, and in 1850 Manet began studying figure painting in the studio of Thomas Couture, where he remained until 1856. Manet travelled abroad and made many copies of classic paintings for both foreign and French public collections.

Manet’s entry for the Salon of 1859, “The Absinthe Drinker”, a romantic but daring work, was rejected. At the Salon of 1861, his “Spanish Singer”, one of a number of works of Spanish character painted in this period, not only was admitted to the Salon but won an honourable mention and the praise of the poet Théophile Gautier. This was to be Manet’s last success for many years.

In 1863 Manet married Suzanne Leenhoff, his piano teacher. That year he showed fourteen paintings at the Martinet Gallery; one of them, “Music in the Tuileries”, caused a hostile reaction. Also in 1863 the Salon rejected Manet’s large painting “Luncheon on the Grass”; its combination of clothed men and a nude woman was considered offensive. Manet elected to have it shown at the now famous Salon des Refusés, created by the Emperor to quiet complaints from the large number of painters whose work had been turned away by the official Salon. In 1865 Manet’s “Olympia” produced an even more violent reaction at the official Salon, and his reputation as a rebel became widespread.

In 1866, after the Salon jury had rejected two of Manet’s works, novelist Émile Zola (1840–1902) came to his defence with a series of articles filled with strongly expressed praise. In 1867 Zola published a book that predicted, “Manet’s place is destined to be in the Louvre”. In May 1868 Manet, at his own expense, exhibited fifty of his works at the Paris World’s Fair; he felt that his paintings had to be seen together in order to be fully understood. Although the painters of the impressionist movement were influenced by Manet during the 1860s, later it appeared that he had also learned from them. His colours became lighter, and his strokes became shorter and quicker. Still, Manet remained mainly a figure and studio painter and refused to show his works with the impressionists at their private exhibitions.

Toward the end of the 1870s Manet returned to the figures of the early years. Perhaps his greatest work was his last major one, “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère”. In 1881 Manet was admitted to membership in the Legion of Honour, an award he had long dreamed of. By then he was seriously ill, his constitution weakened by advancing syphilis, and walking became increasingly difficult for him. In his weakened condition he found it easier to handle pastels than oils, and he produced a great many flower pieces and portraits in that medium. In early 1883 his left leg was amputated, but this did not prolong his life. He died peacefully in Paris on April 30, 1883.

Manet was short, quite handsome, and witty. He was remembered as kind and generous toward his friends. Still, many elements of his personality were in conflict. Although he was a revolutionary artist, he craved official honours; while he dressed fashionably, he spoke a type of slang that was at odds with his appearance and manners; and although his style of life was that of a member of the conservative classes, his political beliefs were liberal.

“The Old Musician” of 1862 is characteristic of Manet’s early “finished” style. The three portraits in the centre of the painting are expressive and beautifully modeled, however, the two people on the extreme right are quickly executed and almost caricatured. The little girl on the left is flat, almost a cut-out. The stiff formality of the poses and the ill-defined background could mislead the viewer to think that this is an assembly of people in front of the backdrop of a photographer’s studio. Yet, Manet’s work is vivid and full of energy, the colours although muted, very agreeable and the composition, based on intersecting triangles, brings the viewer’s eyes back to the three faces in the centre. It is quite an intriguing work and one that could be interpreted allegorically. Time, art, music, gender, and death can all be seen here. The old man with the turban on the extreme right is especially enigmatic.

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