Édouard Manet—the eldest son of an official in the French Ministry of Justice—had early hopes of becoming a naval officer. After twice failing the training school’s entrance exam, the teenager instead went to Paris to pursue a career in the arts. There he studied with Thomas Couture and diligently copied works at the Musée du Louvre.
The biennial (and later, annual) Parisian Salons were considered the most expedient way for an artist to make himself known to the public, and Manet submitted paintings to Salon juries throughout his career. In 1861, at the age of twenty-nine, he was awarded the Salon’s honorable mention for The Spanish Singer (49.58.2). His hopes for continued early success were dashed at the subsequent Salon of 1863. That year, more than half of the submissions to the official Salon were rejected, including Manet’s own. To staunch public outcry, Napoleon III ordered the formation of a Salon des Refusés. Manet exhibited three paintings, including the scandalous Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Musée d’Orsay, Paris). The public professed to be shocked by the subject of a nude woman blithely enjoying a picnic in the company of two fully clothed men, while a second, scantily clad woman bathes in a stream. While critics recognized that this scene of modern-day debauchery was, to a certain degree, an updated version of Titian’s Concert champêtre (a work then thought to be by Giorgione; Musée du Louvre, Paris), they ruthlessly attacked Manet’s painting style.
Manet’s submissions to the Salon of 1864 were again condemned by critics, who found errors of perspective in his Incident at a Bullfight (fragments of which are now at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and the Frick Collection, New York) and a lack of decorum in The Dead Christ and the Angels (29.100.51). The latter picture, in particular, was denounced for its realistic touches, such as the cadaverous body of Christ and the seemingly human angels. It was argued that the painting lacked any sense of spirituality; the figure of the battered Christ was said to more closely resemble the body of a dead coal miner than the son of God.
Despite his efforts, Manet’s modern scenes remained a target of criticism throughout the decade. Olympia (Musée d’Orsay, Paris) was considered the most shocking work in the 1865 Salon. Its debt to Titian‘s Venus of Urbino (Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence) only accentuated the wide gulf of public opinion vis-à-vis a reclining nude woman as subject matter: a goddess was perfectly acceptable, but a contemporary prostitute awaiting her client was not.
Dejected by the critical response to his art, Manet traveled to Spain in August 1865. His interest in Spanish culture already had been apparent for years, with paintings such as The Spanish Singer, Mademoiselle V…, and Young Man in the Costume of a Majo. He garbed his studio models in Andalusian costumes and outfitted them with Spanish props, often in fanciful ways. For example, the left-handed model of The Spanish Singer (49.58.2) presses on nonexistent chords of a guitar strung for a right-handed player. A stereotypical Spanish still life rests next to his espadrille-clad feet. Similarly, Victorine Meurent, the female model of Mademoiselle V… (29.100.53), is shown wearing men’s clothes, as well as shoes that are impractical for a bullfighting ring. Stylistically, many of these paintings reveal a clear debt to the art of Velázquez and Goya.
After being rejected from the Salon of 1866 and learning that he was to be excluded from the Exposition Universelle of 1867 as well, Manet grew anxious to find an audience for his art. He used his inheritance to construct a pavilion across the street from one of the entrances to the Exposition Universelle. Inside were fifty of his pictures, including several large works now in the Metropolitan’s collection: A Matador (29.100.52) and Young Lady in 1866 (Woman with a Parrot) (89.21.3). Earlier that year, the artist’s first champion, Émile Zola, had published a lengthy and glowing article about Manet. “The future is his,” Zola proclaimed. He insisted that the much-maligned Déjeuner sur l’herbe (which was included in Manet’s 1867 exhibition) would one day hang in the Louvre. Zola proved prophetic; it took almost seventy years, but the painting entered the collection of the Louvre (now Musée d’Orsay) in 1934.
By all accounts, the sociable Manet was on good terms with many of his peers. He had met Edgar Degas in 1859, when they both copied paintings at the Louvre; he befriended Berthe Morisot, who eventually married his younger brother; and he spoke with countless others during the now-famous evening gatherings at the Café Guerbois. His first encounter with Claude Monet was strained due to Manet’s belief that Monet was copying his style in “despicable pastiches,” then signing them with a signature too close to Manet’s own. After the confusion was cleared, the men became close, as is obvious in a work such as The Monet Family (1976.201.14). Boating (29.100.115), also painted during the summer of 1874, records a moment when Manet, Monet, and Auguste Renoir painted together at Argenteuil, a suburb northwest of Paris. That spring, Degas, Monet, and Morisot were among the artists who exhibited together as the Société Anonyme des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs (an event more commonly referred to as the first Impressionist exhibition). Manet declined invitations to participate in this or any of the seven subsequent exhibitions organized by the group. They nonetheless influenced one another and shared an interest in modern subjects, plein-air painting, bright colors (often purchased ready-made, in tube form), and visually arresting cropping (inspired by both photographs and Japanese prints).
When Manet’s health began to deteriorate toward the end of the decade, he was advised to take a cure at Bellevue. In the summer of 1880, he rented a villa in that Parisian suburb, and he painted his last portrait of his wife, the Dutch-born pianist Suzanne Leenhoff, in the villa’s garden (1997.391.4). The following spring, he won a second-class medal at the Salon for his portrait of Henri Rochefort (Kunsthalle, Hamburg), and in the fall he was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. He continued to work until his premature death in April 1883.
Within a year, a posthumous exhibition of 179 of his paintings, pastels, drawings, and prints was organized at the École des Beaux-Arts, the officially sanctioned art school. At least one critic commented on the irony of the location for an artist whose works had been ridiculed and refused by so many Salon juries. It seems unlikely that Manet would have minded. He himself wrote that he had “no intention of overthrowing old methods of painting, or creating new ones.” The critic Louis Gonse viewed things slightly differently. “Manet is a point of departure, the symptomatic precursor of a revolution,” he wrote. To this day, Manet is still considered by many art historians to be the father of modernism.
Rabinow, Rebecca. “Édouard Manet (1832–1883).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/mane/hd_mane.htm (October 2004)