Édouard Manet (1832-1883) was born into the ranks of the Parisian bourgeoisie on January 29, 1832. His Mother, Eugenie-Desiree Fournier, was a woman of refinement and goddaughter of Charles Bernadotte, the Crown Prince of Sweden. Édouard's father, Auguste Manet, was a magistrate and judge who hoped that Édouard would someday follow in his footsteps, but Édouard was destined to follow another path. From a wealthy family and grounded in the academic tradition of the French Academy, Manet's love for Vallesques and Goya and his many paintings are reflective of Spanish influences.
The Realism of Gustave Courbet and his contemporaries had hardly established themselves before a new kind of Realism began to lead off in a very different direction. In the autumn of 1864, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, an English painter described in a letter home detailing French Realism after a visit to the studios of Corbet and Manet:
"There is a man named Manet..........whose pictures are for the most part mere scrawls, and who seems to be one of the lights of the Realists school. Courbet, the head of it, is not much better."
"I myself shouldn't like to meet this young man..... I should be obliged to tell him I don't understand anything about his paintings and I don't want to be disagreeable to him"
It's important to note that it was during this time that Paris launched a massive modernization and revitalization of the city. Up until 1852, the city had retained its medieval infrastructure which was now becoming cumbersome because of the growing urban population. These modernization efforts not only affected the physical environment of Paris but the cultural and social atmosphere as well. Many people were employed as streets were widened and lengthened, store fronts redesigned, buildings torn down and redeveloped. Paris was to be the most beautiful and progressive city in the world. It was this modernity with which Manet chose to concern himself.
This course of modern painting shifted into a new era with Édouard Manet . He not only began to record the appearance of the physical world but aspired to the authentic representation of the color and light that reveal the world to the eye. In his endeavors, Manet, the Realist, became the point of departure for the latter Impressionist transformation of the great tradition in painting that began earlier with Giotto di Bondone.
Manet put great store in being accepted at the French Academy or more commonly referred to as simply The Salon. In fact, he believed that success as an artist could only be obtained through recognition there. Even though a journalist in 1874 had made fun of Claude Monet's Impression-Sunrise by using the term Impressionism, the debate over the value of Impressionistic painting started eleven years earlier with Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe (also known as the Luncheon on the Grass).
The Salon jury of 1863 had been exceptionally brutal and thousands of paintings had been refused. To counter these refusals, the Salon des Refuses was established and it was there that Manet chose to exhibit his Dejeuner sur l'herbe As irony would have it, it was the public seeking the avant-garde at the Salon des Refusés was astounded by Manets' Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe, originally entitled simply The Bath. Although influenced by Raphael and Giorgione, Dejeuner did not bring Manet accolades and praise. Detractors thought Dejuener to be anti-academic, politically suspect and the fallout controversy surrounding this painting has made Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe a benchmark in academic discussions of modern art. The nude in Manet's painting was no nymph, or mythological being...she was a modern Parisian women cast into a contemporary setting with two clothed men. Many found this to be quite vulgar and begged the question "Who's for lunch?" Critics also had much to say about Manet's technical abilities. His harsh frontal lighting and elimination of mid tones rocked ideas of traditional academic training. And yet, it is also important to take note that not everyone criticized Manet, for it was also Dejeuner which set the stage for the advent of Impressionism.
Olympia also painted in 1863, caused a similar uproar and the controversy surrounding these two paintings truly horrified Manet. It was not at all his intention to create a scandal. Manet was not a radical artist, such as Courbet nor was he a bohemian, as the critics had speculated. Recently wed to Suzanne Leenhoff, the well mannered and well bred Manet was an immaculately groomed member of high society. As Henri Fantin-Latour's Portrait of Manet suggests - this man was the quintessential Parisian flaneur
Political events between the years 1867-1871 were disorderly ones for Paris, and the Franco-Prussian War left Paris besieged and defeated. Manet turned his eye to these events in his works entitled Execution of Maximilian, Civil War and The Barricade. In 1870, Manet sent his family south to protect them from the fighting in Paris and signed on as a gunner in the National Guard. There is much evidence by letters to family and friends, which expresses Manet's dismay and horror at the war and these paintings stand as testimonials to Manet's sentiments. The Execution of Maximilian reached out to Francisco Goya's Third of May but despite its masterly influence the painting was banned from being exhibited in Paris due to the "Frenchness" of the executioners costume.
By 1874 the Cafe Guerbois, near Manet's studio became the gathering spot for Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Degas and Pissarro. Manet's reputation was firmly established as an experimental artist and leader of the Impressionists. He was less than enthusiastic about his role as leader of the avant-garde. He never exhibited in any of the eight Impressionist exhibitions of 1874 and yet by no means did Manet abandon the Impressionists often rendering financial support to his friends who needed it. He chose instead to remain focused on the Salon and was never truely assimilated into the true Impressionistic style.Throughout his oeuvre Manet painted modern day life, yet many of his paintings are so much more than simple imitative portrayals. Édouard Manet may have been 'a child of the century." One is reminded of the novels of Manet's friend, Émile Zola who showered him with accolades of his daring modernity. He wished to shine in the Parisian Salon where he did not attempt to revive 'great painting,' but tried to speak in a new voice. Manet may have also been mindful of Baudelaire' observation that
".....we are surrounded by the heroism of modern life, (but there is as yet no painter) who will know how to tear out of life its epic side and make us see, with color or drawing, how grand we are in out neckties and varnished boots!
Always controversial, Manet wished to record the days of his life using his own unique vision. From beggars, to prostitutes, to the bourgeoisie he desired to be true to himself and to reproduce "not great art, but sincere art." If his work seems to be full of contradictions, or to use a lack of perspective from time to time, then one could say that was the true reality of Paris in Manet's time. He died, in Paris, on April 30, 1883.
De La Croix, Horst, Richard D. Tansey, and Diane Kirkpatrick.
Art Through the Ages. University of Michigan: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
1992. (Lecture presented at Pima Community College.)