Detail from 'The Railway', 1873 • Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington

Life: But Not As We Know It

1st February 2013

One of the great names in 19th century art is
the subject of a show at the Royal Academy.
Jack Watkins reviews Manet: Portraying Life

On a glum, grey morning in this wintriest of winters, what better place to be than in the warm exhibition halls of the Royal Academy, admiring the light and dainty artwork of one of the Impressionist masters? Yet Edouard Manet isn’t one of your regulation, sunny-skied Impressionists. Senior to the likes of Monet, Renoir, Morisot and Sisley, his works live in a sort of halfway house between the painstaking brushwork virtuosos of the classical age, and the speedy, shimmering evanescences of the new breed. Although a subtle master of lighting, he painted boldly, with a firm hand, seldom reaching for dazzling effects or dramatic themes. It can be a battle to appreciate his achievements.

The added difficulty here is that you may struggle to get close enough to the canvases to have a proper look. This is a blockbuster show and the crowd hover round the celebrated Music in the Tuileries Gardens like pigeons round a picknicker in Hyde Park. “Oh, there’s Baudelaire, and there’s Offenbach – and that’s Manet over there on the left.” Terrific! It’s far from the best picture in this large show, anyhow, so I decide to press on…

…but while it’s completely understandable in these cash-strapped times that galleries feel the need to cash in with well-known names, it would be great if someone took a punt once in a while with the likes of Berthe Morisot – Manet’s painter sister- in-law, the subject of several fine portraits in this show and long overdue her own place in the spotlight.

Several critics have pointed out that this exhibition omits many of the artist’s best paintings. It also contains much that was never publically exhibited in his lifetime, and others that were plainly unfinished. They are, as a record reviewer might say, for Manet completists only. And Manet, even at his best, was never a painter of ‘exciting’ subjects – that wasn’t his motivation – and there is plenty here that is dull.

Frankly, he often leaves me cold. Take, for instance, The Railway. A young woman sitting on a bench looks up directly at us, as if interrupted from reading the book on her knee, while a little girl, her back turned, peers through the railings at a passing train, the latter only evidenced by the effects of steam. The cleverness of this picture lies in the naturalness of the young woman’s pose, a sort of candid shot that you might have taken with a tiny camera. Why do I so dislike it? Is it the heaviness with which he has painted the two figures, in contrast to the more poetically imagined backdrop, or perhaps the Victorian drabness of the woman’s attire?

I don’t know the answer, but I have the same sense of oppression with the Portrait of Antonin Proust, standing stiffly in his top hat and long velvet coat, gloved hand on one hip, the other on top of his cane. The best portrait painters always leave you with a sense of the soul beneath the exterior, but even though Proust was friends enough with Manet to pen his recollections of their acquaintance, there is something dour about this work. Certainly, you must admire the skill with which the material of the coat is depicted, but great art is surely more than a technical exercise.

Fascination with the process was Manet’s lasting passion, however, making him to some extent a painter’s painter. Born in Paris in 1832, the son of a senior civil servant and a diplomat’s daughter, his independence of means allowed him to pursue his own creative concerns rather than to conform to the conventional requirements of the Paris artistic establishment. Yet Manet readily steeped himself in the traditions of the Dutch, Italian and Spanish Old Masters, most obviously Frans Hals, Velazquez and Goya, and in the age-old way, spent time on the art trail in Germany and Italy, copying the works of the ancients. One of the earliest pictures in this show, the delightful Fishing, painted around 1862-63 and peopled with members of his own family, shows how brilliantly he absorbed the tonal values of the Dutch landscape painters.

When the Impressionists held their first exhibition in 1874, Manet declined to take part. Even so, he was a leading member of their fellowship, having been repeatedly rejected by the Paris Salon. Music in the Tuileries Gardens was condemned because it was deemed too unabashed a celebration of the modern boulevardier lifestyle. Luncheon on the Grass (or Déjeuner Sur l’Herbe) also caused a scandal because of its voyeuristic subject matter. It made Manet a household name in Paris. Today, its figures look stiffly artificial, though the lighting effects bestow an atmospheric and dreamlike quality to the woodland setting.

If Manet became one of the undisputed leaders of the group of artists who gathered at the Paris Café Guerbois in the 1860s, the immaculately dressed artist remained a traditionalist in many ways, and never gave up trying to get his work accepted by the Salon. He exhibited in none of the eight Impressionist shows. That he was influenced by their ideas is clear, though, in works like Mme Manet in the Conservatory and (in a landscape welcome in a show largely devoted to portraiture) The Swallows. The subject is reminiscent of Claude Monet: an everyday country setting, two females in a meadow amongst flitting swallows, cows in the middle distance, and windmills on the skyline. The plein air treatment lacks something of Monet’s light touch, though, and it was deemed too unfinished to be accepted by the Salon jury in 1874, much to the disgust of the poet Stéphane Mallarmé: ‘What is an unfinished painting when all its parts harmonise and it has a charm that one additional touch of paint would mar?’

For the most part, however, Manet pursued an independent furrow. When he held a one-man show in 1887, in a self-penned catalogue he wrote: ‘M Manet… does not claim either to overthrow traditional painting or create a new style. He has simply tried to be himself.’ One of his great advocates was the novelist Émile Zola, and Manet’s masterly portrait of the writer at his desk is one of the exhibition highlights. Zola’s reflections on the experience of sitting give a fine insight into Manet’s devotion to his work: ‘I remember posing for hours on end… Now and again, half-dozing as I sat there, I looked at the artist standing at his easel, his features taut, his eyes bright, absorbed in his work. He had forgotten me; he no longer realised I was there.’

Manet’s last years were dogged by deteriorating health and he died, at 51, in 1883. Given that Monet went on being productive into the 1920s, you must wonder how Manet’s own art would have continued to evolve. This show will reaffirm his stature for those who love him, but I found very little to raise my pulse rate and, for a major protagonist, that’s quite a surprise.

Manet: Portraying Life runs to 14 April;
see www.royalacademy.org.uk for more info

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