Using props and ingenuity, Manet captured the beauty of his time.
By <span itemprop="author">Communications staff</span>
ÉDOUARD MANET was a keen observer of all 19th-century Paris had to offer. Considered “the painter of modern life,” in keeping with Charles Baudelaire’s 1863 essay of that title, he frequented the city’s cafés and admired its fashions, making sketches of what inspired him but composing most of his work in the studio. Having been ridiculed by critics as a bohemian rebel for his shocking twists on Old Master–inspired paintings, Manet publicly asserted himself as the urban gentleman, an image reinforced in an 1867 portrait by Henri Fantin-Latour depicting a smartly dressed Manet with trimmed beard, top hat, and gold pocket watch.
But beginning in the late 1870s, as illness left him increasingly immobile, this man of the city often found himself removed from the lifestyle he loved, stuck in the suburbs for extended periods of rest and treatment or simply unable to venture out and enjoy urban life. Manet, however, was not to be discouraged. While in Paris, he had the café come to him, hiring a barkeep to deliver refreshments to his male and female friends while he worked. Importantly, he gathered a set of props in his studio—including a marble-topped table, mugs, and articles of clothing—which he used to create scenes of modern Paris life.
A prime example of this sort of studio staging is Plum Brandy, which features a young woman in pink seated with an unlit cigarette in her hand, a full drink, and a distant expression. The setting is thought to be La Nouvelle Athénes, a café frequented by Manet and many major Impressionists, but this specificity is more illusion than document.
Just as Manet brought city life into his studio, the artist found a clever way to bring his country life back home to Paris. In Woman Reading, what seems to be a window looking out onto a blooming garden is now identified as one of the paintings Manet created while staying in the suburb of Bellevue. Manet perhaps hints at this through both the woman’s winter clothing (odd for a spring or summer day) and the blue form behind her, which his contemporaries may have recognized as a watering can he had painted before.
Manet also found inspiration in his immediate surroundings, using his shrinking world to push his art out in new directions. Beginning in 1880, he took up still-life painting with gusto, creating some of the very best 19th-century examples of the genre. The many cut flowers he depicted in oil—some given to him by friends and returned in painted form—are offered up in clear, simple vases typically set on his trusty marble-topped table. Glowing brightly against their monochromatic backgrounds, their natural beauty commands the viewer’s full attention.
Manet’s resilience and ingenuity in the studio enabled him to continue working throughout his physical decline, creating a tremendous body of later works, both larger-scale and small. Through these and dozens of others, Manet and Modern Beauty offers a glimpse into the ways in which Manet captured what he loved most about his world.
Manet and Modern Beauty runs through September 8.
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Gloria Groom: This is the anti-bohemian portrait. I mean every hair on his beard looks like it’s in place.
Narrator: In this portrait, created by his friend Henri Fantin-Latour in 1867, we find Manet having come off a rough couple of years. Curator, Gloria Groom.
Gloria Groom: Manet was really, almost suffering the height of the ridicule that had been aimed at his paintings.
Narrator: During the official Salon exhibition of 1865, Manet had exhibited two paintings: Olympia, which showed a languid, reclining prostitute attended by a maid, and Jesus Mocked by the Soldiers, an emotive biblical scene of Christ being taunted by soldiers. Each drew from the traditions of Old Master painting, but were posed and painted in a way in a way that dismayed critics and shocked the public.
Gloria Groom: And so it was this combination, this kind of tension between what looked like an Old Master painting in some ways, but then completely redone that was offensive to the critics.
Narrator: Manet was labeled a radical, avant-garde, and controversial, which was the opposite of the perception he was after.
Gloria: He didn’t want to be stamped as an outsider, as a marginalist, as an artist who was in the avant-garde in terms of against the official academy.
Narrator: This portrait, in a sense, is a type of damage control. Fantin-Latour was well liked by the art establishment, so Manet felt his endorsement would help his image. Here, Manet is anything but a Bohemien outsider artist. Instead, Latour shows Manet more as he was and as he wished to be seen.
Gloria Groom: As a well educated, sophisticated Flaneur, man about town, with the cravat, with the silk top hat, and even with a porte-crayon this kind of almost looks like a tie-tack that would hold a pencil at either end. And what’s interesting is that Fantin-Latour not only shows his friend, but signs it “à mon ami, Manet”
Narrator: Meaning, “to my friend Manet.”
Gloria: He’s saying, “He’s my friend, he’s one of us”
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Narrator: Do you sense anything odd about this painting? [pause] Notice the outfit the woman is wearing. She seems a bit bundled up for the spring background behind her, right? That’s not a coincidence. Here, we find Manet pulling a little trick. Curator, Gloria Groom.
Gloria Groom: Scholars have come to realize that this is not a real garden at all, but is rather one of Manet’s own paintings. And the way we’ve come to this conclusion is because of this blue element that you see just to the right of the woman reading, which is actually a water pail.
Narrator: Manet used this same backdrop in paintings from the 1880s. In fact, you can see another example of it in the portrait of Madame Gamby also in this gallery.
By 1880, Manet had become less mobile due to illness, and could not longer make it out to the cafes, parks, and other Parisian scenes that he loved painting. Instead, he resorted to recreating the scenes in his studio. Here he combines garden scene likely painted while in the suburbs with a modern Parisian women drinking a beer, whose portrait was done back in Paris.
Gloria Groom: The whole concept is that she is a modern woman. She has her bock of beer, she’s out by herself, she’s concentrating not on the latest political news but probably on what she’s going to go consume next at the Galeries Lafayette. And so she’s the picture of a fashionable Parisian—a type that he said he wanted to show in all of their beauty, in all of their grace and glamour.
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