And yet, it is also important to understand that not everyone criticized Manet, for it was also Dejeuner which set the stage for the advent of Impressionism.
Indeed, Manet emerged as something of an enfant terrible in the Parisian art scene of this era. In the same year, he would also produce Olympia, another painting featuring a female nude that would become the centre of much controversy. Olympia caused a major uproar when it was first exhibited in 1865 at the Salon in Paris. Despite the fact that it calls to mind the classical images of Giorgione (Venus Sleeping), Titian (Venus of Urbino), and Ingres (Odalisque with a Slave), the public was outraged by Manet's depiction of a common prostitute laying nude on a bed. A black female servant stares at her as she fixes the Madame's bed, while a black cat stands on edge at the end of the bed, as though anticipating the viewers' loud, outraged response.
Of course, it was never Manet's intention to shock with his art. He truly did not understand why his two paintings had had such an extreme effect on society. While his bohemian roots have frequently been asserted by biographers who like to indulge the myth of the wild, savage artist, in truth, Manet was very much a part of high society in Paris in the mid-19th century. He truly wanted his art to reflect this society - and he wanted the society to accept him as an artist.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the controversy generated by these two paintings, Manet would go on to inspire a horde of other artists with his technical virtuosity. Painters like Pierre Renoir and Claude Monet would find in Manet something of a father figure. He would liberate painters of the 19th century from the constraints of academic painting, allowing them an unprecedented amount of freedom to explore the art of painting from uncannily new perspectives.
The political events that rocked Paris between the years of 1867 and 1871 would have a significant impact on many of the later works of Edouard Manet. After the Franco-Prussian War, it seemed like the city's golden years had come to an abrupt end. Times were rough, and Manet documented the hardships of these years in a series of paintings that included Execution of Maximilian, the Barricade, and Civil War. Manet himself joined in, becoming a gunner in the National Guard in 1870. Manet reacted to the war with horror; this is clearly indicated from the three paintings that were inspired by this period. The Execution of Maximilian, completed in 1868, has echoes of Goya's Third of May.
Manet did not limit his output during this period to political subjects, however. He continued to keep his eye on every aspect of the society he still very much felt himself to be a part of. His famous Portrait of Emile Zola was completed during this period, as was the Balcony and the Railroad.
By the end of the conflict, Manet's reputation as a serious artist was cemented. He was widely considered to be the leader of the new group known as the Impressionists. Manet also became firmly involved in cafe life in the 1870s and 1880s, and his paintings from this era reflect this. Of particular interest was the Cafe Guerbois,...
This is the cafe where the leading Impressionists - including Monet, Pissaro, Renoir, Degas, and Sisley - would gather. At the head of the table was always Manet - despite the fact that he felt very uncomfortable in his role as the leader of the Impressionists. While he remained friends with the Impressionist painters throughout his life, he refused to participate in their exhibitions. Indeed, while Manet's open style certainly influenced the development of the movement, Manet himself was never really an Impressionist painter. The Impressionists were firmly cemented as the leading avant-garde movement in Paris during this time; Manet preferred being a member of the establishment, and thus stuck to the Salon.
It was only late in life that Manet came anywhere close to approaching the Impressionists' style or preferred subject matter. At the same time, Manet's style was resolutely his own. Even a blatantly Impressionistic painting such as Claude Monet Painting on His Studio Boat from 1874 is indicative of the artist maintaining his interest in what people around him are doing, rather with the natural world, which the Impressionist painters largely wished to convey in their canvases. Another of Manet's near-Impressionist works, Argenteuil, was completed around the same time. It features a couple seated on a bench in front of a lake, with the town featured in the title of the work in the background. As MacDonald (1999) has noted, "both [paintings] approach the notions of reflected light and atmosphere of Impressionism but Manet never becomes assimilated into the true Impressionist style."
But it was not nature that ultimately inspired Manet; rather, it was the city of Paris itself. This is perhaps most evident in the cafe paintings that the artist completed in the last years of his life. The most famous of these, a Bar at the Folies-Bergere, was completed in 1882. It consists of a typical French barmaid staring forlornly at the crowd, which is reflected in the mirror in back of her. With its brilliant composition of black and white patches, a Bar at the Folies-Bergere is a melancholy masterpiece that transports the viewer to the cafe itself. It is a work filled with optical contradictions that is nonetheless typical of Manet at his greatest - as a mirror of the very society that forged his genius.
Indeed, perhaps more than any artist of his era - and certainly more than the subsequent Impressionist artists - the work of Manet is reflective of the Parisian society that he was very much a part of. MacDonald (1999) has linked the idiosyncratic painting style of Manet directly with the times he lived through: "If Manet's work seems to be full of contradictions, or to employ a lack of perspective from time to time, then perhaps that was the true reality of Paris in Manet's time."
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MacDonald, L. 1999, "Edouard Manet," Artchive, [Online] Available at http://www.artchive.com/artchive/M/manet.html
Manet, E. 1874, Argenteuil, Painting, [Online] Available at http://www.abcgallery.com/M/manet/manet30.html
Manet, E. 1881-1882, a Bar at the Folies-Bergere, Painting, [Online] Available at http://www.artchive.com/artchive/M/manet/manet_bar.jpg.html
Manet, E. 1874, Claude Monet Painting on His Studio Boat, Painting, [Online] Available at: http://www.abcgallery.com/M/manet/manet29.html
Manet, E. 1863, Dejeuner sur l'Herbe, Painting, [Online] Available at http://www.jssgallery.org/other_artists/Manet/Lunch_on_the_Grass.htm
Manet, E. 1863, Olympia, Painting, [Online] Available at http://www.jssgallery.org/other_artists/Manet/Olympia.htm
Rosenberg, H. 1969, Artworks and Packages, Thames and Hudson, London.
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