Édouard Manet (1832-1883), French painter, whose work inspired the impressionist style, but who never identified his own work with impressionism. Manet had far-reaching influence on French painting and the general development of modern art, which stemmed from his choice of subject matter from the world around him; his application of color in broad, flat patches; and a technique that left the artist’s vigorous, sketchy brush strokes visible on the canvas.
Manet was born in Paris, the son of a senior official in the French ministry of justice. To avoid studying law, as his father wished him to do, Manet went to sea as a naval trainee. After his return from a voyage to Brazil, he overcame his father’s opposition to his becoming an artist. From 1850 to 1856 Manet studied in Paris under Thomas Couture, a well-respected French painter. But he gained his real artistic education by studying the paintings of the old masters at the Louvre in Paris and on visits he made to some of the great museums of Germany, Italy, and The Netherlands. The paintings of Dutch artist Frans Hals and Spanish artists Diego Velázquez and Francisco de Goya were the principal influences on his art.
Manet was constantly at odds with his teacher, whose studio he described as a tomb. What Manet hoped to accomplish was to paint “the life of the times as it really is.” He believed he had achieved this goal with his somber Absinthe Drinker (1859, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, Denmark). Couture, however, disliked the lowly subject matter—a down-and-out alcoholic—and commented that the only absinthe drinker was “the painter who produced this insanity.” The gloom that pervades the Absinthe Drinker is missing from a painting done the next year, Musique aux Tuileries (1860, National Gallery, London, England). Practically all Manet’s family circle are portrayed in the picture, along with friends and acquaintances, including composer Jacques Offenbach, poet Charles Baudelaire, and critic Théophile Gautier.
After his father died in 1862, Manet came into a substantial inheritance, which enabled him to pursue his artistic inclinations without needing to sell his work to earn a living. By this time he had experienced some minor professional successes and setbacks, but the following year he was at the center of one of the most dramatic events in 19th-century art. This was the launch in 1863 of the Salon des Refusés, a new exhibition place opened by French emperor Napoleon III following the protests of artists who had been rejected by the official government Salon. Many visitors came to mock the paintings on display, and Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l'herbe (1863, Luncheon on the Grass, Musée d'Orsay, Paris) attracted wide attention and was bitterly attacked by the critics. Manet’s canvas portrayed a woodland picnic that included a seated nude woman accompanied by two fully dressed young men. The depiction of nudity in a contemporary setting was considered immoral; at that time nudity in art was acceptable only if it was suitably distanced from real life, by being placed in a mythological context, for example. Despite this setback he exhibited two paintings at the official Salon in 1864.
Greater notoriety came two years later when the official Salon accepted Manet’s Olympia (1863, Musée d'Orsay) for its 1865 exhibition. This painting also showed a naked woman. The pose was based on the well-known Venus of Urbino by the Italian Renaissance painter Titian, a painting that Manet had seen and copied in Florence, Italy. But the woman whom Manet depicted was clearly a modern Parisian, not a Renaissance interpretation of a Greek goddess. Her overt sexuality and her direct and knowing gaze (at the observer of the painting) were out of step with the taste of the time, and many people considered the painting an affront to morality. Manet also was condemned for the unconventional nature of his technique. His use of flat areas of color and bold contrasts of tone rather than painstaking detail struck traditionalists as merely sloppy and lazy. Manet wrote to his friend Baudelaire, “Insults are pouring down on me as thick as hail,” and he went to Spain for a while to escape the abuse. There he drew inspiration from the works of Velázquez and Goya.
Manet by then was hailed as a hero by rebellious artists who were trying to break away from outmoded conventions. His work was particularly admired by the painters who later became known as impressionists. In 1866 the French novelist Émile Zola, who championed the art of Manet in the newspaper L’Événement, became a close friend of the painter; Portrait of Émile Zola (1867-1868, Musée d’Orsay) reflects this friendship. Zola was soon joined by the young group of French impressionist painters that included Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro, and Paul Cézanne.
The impressionist painters were influenced by Manet’s art and in turn influenced him, particularly in the use of lighter colors and an emphasis on the effects of light. Although Manet never exhibited at their group shows, he socialized with the impressionists, and during the 1870s his brushwork became looser and more spontaneous, his composition freer, and his subject matter more contemporary, in line with their style. An example of this departure is Argenteuil (1874, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Tournai, Belgium), a painting depicting the pleasures of summer life in the French town of Argenteuil along the Seine River. Manet sometimes adopted the impressionists’ habit of painting out of doors, encouraged particularly by Berthe Morisot, the outstanding woman painter of this group, who married Manet’s brother in 1874. About this time Manet met the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, a strong proponent of impressionism. They became close friends, and Manet painted Mallarmé’s portrait in 1876.
In the late 1870s Manet began to suffer bouts of pain and fatigue, probably caused by syphilis affecting his central nervous system. Often he was too weak to use oil paints, and so he increasingly worked in pastel or crayon. However, he produced one final major work, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1881-1882, Courtauld Institute Galleries, London). Here, against a background brilliant with light and reflections from a mirror, a young barmaid confronts the viewer, eyes slightly averted. Perhaps the real subject of the painting is the anonymity of modern urban life. Manet’s last pictures included some small and simple, yet masterful flower pieces.
Manet was one of the most influential artists of the 19th century. Yet he did not gain recognition until late in life. Coming from a highly respectable social background, his intention was not to be an artistic rebel, and he insisted he was not trying to overthrow traditional ideas. He thought of himself instead as a realist painter. Throughout his career he sought conventional success and honors in the art world. Two years before his death, an old friend who was then minister of fine arts obtained the Legion of Honor for the artist. It was the kind of award Manet had long craved.