To have a deeper understanding of the French modernist painter Edouard Manet (1832-1883) and his masterpieces, together with his contemporaries, first we have to delve into the art movement that they have pioneered — Impressionism. But before that, it is just proper to discuss Realism, the movement that came before it.
The rising Modern Age was trying to “emancipate” the individual along with establishing industrialization, scientific thinking, etc. Modern man was no longer bound to religious inhibitions and mythological baggage that the classical/feudal system imposed. Artists were now concerned with problems that fascinated the intellectuals and skeptics. Therefore, Realism suggested that the artists must portray the “truth” as how they see it; not idealized, not romanticized. (Thinking About Art)
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Later, as western art movements were usually in reaction to the previous trend, a new breed of artists looked at painting in another perspective. Expectedly, Impressionists received heavy disapproval from critics and the public, like how Realists were welcomed when they were still beginning. Like many stylistic labels, “Impressionism” was first used by a critic in a disparaging sense, in their case, a journalist. The conventional wisdom was that painting should depict the truth; it should capture the underlying structure of natural forms regardless of who saw them or when they were seen. But to the Impressionists, feeling and structure were substantially abandoned. Instead of emphasizing their thoughts and emotions, these painters attended to their optical sensations and to them alone. The Impressionists applied a nineteenth-century scientific knowledge to the representation form as nothing but color and light. Their representation of changing light and vaguely defined forms was hardly volumetric, unlike the Realists’ style (Thinking About Art). Impressionist artists aimed to capture a slice of a moment, the impression of an instant (Impressionism).
Forms made of separate touches of relatively unmixed color, rough texture and almost entirely without contour lines, seemed closer to optical reality than the carefully drawn and filled-in pictures of classical realism, provided that viewers learned to move back and forth in front of a picture until they found the place where its little touches of color seemed to fuse into an image. Sometimes, the viewers even have to squint their eyes to confirm what the painter wants them to see. This search for an ideal viewpoint gave the spectator a sense of sharing in the creation of the artwork. Furthermore, from an aesthetic standpoint, that sense of participation was justified. Thus, Impressionist paintings increased the viewer’s responsibility for the quality of his or her experience. This explains why Impressionist artworks turned out to be immensely popular during the nineteenth century. (Thinking About Art)
With Edouard Manet, he began taking everyday objects and pulling out of them new thought provoking feelings and creations. Using broad strokes, Manet produced a vivid summary technique. He adopted bold brush strokes and emphasized certain characteristics considered unorthodoxed Realism. By creating a new type of painting, he made people think and made art reviewers and members of society confused and angry. Manet painted what he saw, not conforming to the common view. This concept forced onlookers to see things in a different perspective. Moreoever, Manet introduced astonishing brightness and stark contrasts (Edouard Manet).
In 1863 Manet joined the famous Salon des Refuses, an exhibition a variety of works that were rejected by the official Salon, and he came to be viewed as the hero of the nonconformists. Though he regarded himself as working in the tradition of the great masters, his approach was to rethink established themes in modern terms. Being highly independent and original in both his unconventional portrayals of modern life and with his spontaneous brushwork, he struggled for academic acceptance throughout his life. Although Manet was somewhat rebellious regarding his subject matter, he craved official recognition. He did not claim to overthrow old methods of painting, or create new ones. Although he never considered himself part of the Impressionist movement, and in fact never exhibited with them, Manet strongly supported their choice of message. His refreshingly direct look at life and his spontaneous yet monumental translation of what he saw into painting earned him the position as their unofficial leader (Manet Paintings: The Ragpicker).
Manet’s The Ragpicker (1865, Oil on canvas, 194.9 x 130.8 cm, The Norton Simon Foundation), is a solid proof concerning his reaction or, shall we say, rebellion against the old teaching that the only “right” way to do a portrait was to paint noble subjects with noble occupations in life. Manet, who was strongly influenced by the writers and artists of the Realist movement, often selected as his subjects people from middle to lower classes. Following the principles of Realism, Manet left out no details of the man’s station in life and even went as far as to painting trash at the man’s feet, which left the viewer in no doubt of who the subject is.
It is important to keep in mind that Manet did not present the ragpicker in a demeaning manner. To drive the attention of the observer towards the figure, he eliminated distracting elements in the background and placed the subject in shallow space. His painting does not induce the viewer to look down on a man whose position in life is often much lower than most, rather, by making it nearly seven feet tall, the viewer was typically forced to look up a bit to meet the subject’s gaze (Realism).
We should also note that on 1848, before the birth of Realism and Impressionism, the Communist Manifesto was issued. The socio-political and economic issues surrounding society at that time, usually on labor and the emergence of the working class as Marx suggested in the manifesto, influenced the artists who were already enlightened or were beginning to learn about these things.
Another painting by Manet that made a dent in art history was The Absinthe Drinker (1859, Oil on canvas 117.5 cm x 103 cm, NY Carlsberg-Glyptotek,
Copenhagen, Denmark). This was his first submission to the Salon in 1859 but was refused, in spite of the favorable opinion of Delacroix, for the main reason that Manet used a traditional pictorial configuration (full-length portrait) to represent a marginal and socially discredited person. Thomas Couture (his old teacher) condemned this painting by saying: “Does anyone paint something so ugly? My poor friend, there is only one absinthe drinker here, and this is the painter who produced this insanity…” (Edouard Manet 1832-1883). Again, we can see how Manet places an object, in this case a liquor bottle and a drinking goblet, to fully describe what type of man his subject was. Nevertheless, he did not portray the drunkard as a disgraceful person; rather, he even made him pose with a touch of decency.
At the beginning of the 1860s, Manet walks without rest through Paris which then changed from day to day to detect the most subtle characteristics, transformations, then drawing in his notebook a detail, a profile, a hat in a “word a fugitive impression” (Edouard Manet 1832-1883). This proved to be effective as seen in his paintings which depicted commonplace sceneries and people of common walks of life.
When Olympia (1863, Paris, Oil on canvas, 130.5 x 190 cm, Musee d’Orsay) was presented at the Salon in 1865, out of all the paintings on the walls (and it is believed to have been thousands) it was Olympia that caused such an uproar that authorities were forced to put two armed guards at the painting to protect it. The uproar was a head-on assault on the established methods of painting and the Salon was “the field of battle” according to Manet. This was not only an evolution of thought but a revolution against the sensibilities of that time as well. As a result, Manet was hated and ridiculed. This was outrageous for a common woman, one even of questionable character, being the center of, if not the object of beauty in high art. Models had been used in art but they had always played the role of a goddess, a biblical character or within the scope of a theme. Here Manet sets his subject, a mere woman, one even of a questionable profession, as a goddess herself and it is blew the Parisian public away, though they did not want to admit it.
Looking back, Manet was not completely being revolutionary. His ideas of using common folks are in line with Gustave Courbet (1819-1877). However, he simply took it to the next level. In addition, if we look at the France’s political history, with the revolution and the overthrow of the aristocracy, the art world was ripe enough for a change in the way people view things — though the viewing public (who were often upper class) had to be dragged kicking and screaming (Edouard Manet’s Olympia).
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