A NEW look at the reluctant father of Impressionism, Edouard Manet, could prove to be the exhibition of the decade, showing as it does the history of the man who invented modern art.
Opening at the Musée d’Orsay on April 5 and running until July 3, it is the first major exhibition devoted to Manet in France since 1983 and shows how he reacted to his background, his companions and the changes surrounding him in Paris.
That reaction saw him reject the work of the old masters such as Velázquez and Goya who had earlier influenced him and embrace the view of his friend Charles Baudelaire – one of the innovators of French literature – that he should not be looking to the past but should concentrate on being le peintre de la vie moderne, the painter of the present day.
Stéphane Guégan, curator at the Musée d’Orsay, has overseen the exhibition, which ranges across Manet’s works and especially the lesser-known later works from the 1870s, which he says should not be looked as just another stepping stone on the way to “pure painting”.
He said the exhibition owed, in part, its origins to the Henri Fantin-Latour painting Hommage à Delacroix, which showed Manet standing between the art critic and champion of realism Champfleury and Baudelaire; the link between reality and romance.
An exhibition to draw art lovers and the ordinary man in the street, it reveals the politically active Manet as he pushes the bounds of art beyond what his contemporaries were prepared to accept.
Art critic Theodore Duret said of the Impressionists that “contempt, opprobrium, poverty, never led them to deviate at any time of their way. They held on with their so detested way of painting, without considering, even for one moment, to modify it in any way in order to be accepted of the public.”
They were simply following in the footsteps of Manet, who had to withstand the snubs of society after people rejected the directness of Dejeuner Sur l’Herbe (1863) as vulgar, asking of the nude, “Who’s for lunch?”
People also rejected the luminous contrasts of the nude and her bed in Olympia (1863), even attempting to attack the painting.
The French Academie des Beaux-Arts refused to display both paintings at its annual Salon; they were in fact first shown in the Salon des Refusés in 1863, which had been set up at the behest of Napoléon III, who had tired of the arguments between the academie and rejected artists (who included Cézanne, Monet, Pissarro and Whistler).
Manet was dismayed at the controversy, not understanding why people could not see what he saw, saying: “I paint what I see, and not what others like to see.”
His creativity was, as Baudelaire had said, nourished by his personal view, his subjectivity. It was an epochal change from the previous eras: the romantics Géricault and Delacroix, realists Courbet and Millet, leading to the Barbizon School of naturalists Rousseau and Corot.
Manet took their work and created his own vision, still identifiably realist but looking for the effect of the whole while maintaining simplicity of contrasts.
The Musée d’Orsay exhibition is shown in nine sections: Manet’s art schooling under Thomas Couture, Baudelaire’s support and encouragement, the reform of religious art, erotic imagery, fragments from the Prado to the Alma, his relationship with women painters (Berthe Morisot, Eva Gonzalès), the temptations of high society, his decision to remain outside the main Impressionism movement and his complicity with poet and critic Stéphane Mallarmé at his darkest.
It contains 190 works and includes a section on his one-man exhibition at the La Vie Moderne gallery in 1880. It was to be his last public exhibition in a gallery with a name that harked back to his early exhortation from Baudelaire.
The Musée d’Orsay exhibition has Dejeuner Sur l’Herbe and Olympia to the fore and two versions of Manet’s Barque of Dante, his painting in hommage to Delacroix.
It also has works from Manet’s teacher Thomas Couture; Delacroix’s Hamlet Killing Polonius; Henri-Fantin-Latour’s Hommage à Delacroix; Berthe Morisot, who introduced Manet to the Impressionists; and Mallarmé’s poem L’Après-midi d’un faune.
Bearing in mind the success of the recent Monet retrospective in Paris, where 40,000 queued at the Grand Palais over three days and nights to see it before it closed, it may be better to see the Manet exhibition early.
The Musée d’Orsay has organised special family day visits on April 16 and 30 from 15.00 for families with youngsters aged 11-16.
On Tuesdays to Fridays each week during the exhibition there will also be a special Manet, Manet? Manet! themed-visit organised for 11- to 16-year-olds from 15.30.
The museum is open every day except Monday from 9.30-18.00 (no entry after 17.00). On Thursdays it is open until 21.45. Entry is €10 with concessions at €7.50. Details: www.musee-orsay.fr