Manet played a fundamental part in the art of his day, but it also a curios mixture of ambiguity and contradiction. Ambiguity , because in spite of himself he became the leader and spokesman of Impressionism which was in fact a revolutionary movement in art, although he always intended to remain firmly grounded in tradition: and contradiction, because although he claimed to follow in the steps of the Old Masters, such as Raphael, Giorgione and Titian, The Spanish School and Frans Hals, his painting was mostly in the “modern stile” extolled by Baudelaire. Like Courbet, he was theoretically in favour of using colouring, black and browns and greys that the Impressionists themselves had given up using. He always refused to exhibit with the Impressionists, but after 1871 he began painting out of doors, under the influence of the young artist Claude Monet. Manet , who came from a traditional middle-class background, always hoped to have his pictures accepted at the Salon, but in 1863 he shocked people at the Salon des Refuses, and from that time on, became the butt for general recrimination and criticism; in fact people called his bold “tachisme” technique nothing but “a mess”.
His importance was fundamental, finally, because he became the staunch supported and propagator of new ideas in art, and the avant-garde painting of the time, in spite of all the adverse criticism.
Edouard Manet’s family had decided he was to be a naval officer, but he soon gave up the navy and took up painting instead. In 1850 he began to study in Thomas Couture’s studio, and stayed with him till 1856. In 1855 he painted a canvas which his teacher strongly disapproved of, and when all of other students rallied round and gave Manet a standing ovation. Couture was furious. Manet had to leave the school and completed he training at the Louvre and then travelled extensively abroad, going to Italy (1853), then Holland (1856), Germany and Austria, and finally came back to France to settle.
His Absinthe drinkerpainted in 1858 was turned down for the salon in the following year. However in the same year, Manet painted his first really famous picture, Child with cherries, rather in stile of Murillo, and the Spanish school; it exhibited in 1861 at the Martinet Gallery, 26 Boulevard des Italiens.
In 1862 Manet left his studio in the Rue de Douai and moved to 81 Rue Guyot. From the first of March 1863, and throughout March and April, he exhibited another fourteen paintings, once more at the Martinet Gallery; among them were the Absinthe drinker, Concert in the Tuileries Gardens (1860), which caused quite a stir, and the Old musician (1862). Manet also showed several paintings which were inspired by a group of Spanish dancers who had made two very successful visits to Paris in 1861 and 1862; among them were The Spanish Ballet (1862) and the famous portrait of Lola de Valence (1862).
Not longer after, on 1 may 1863, the official Salon opened. That year the Hanging Committee had been particularly strict and a great number of painting sent up had been turned down. The Emperor Napoleon III decided therefore that he would found another Salon to be held in the same building, the Palais de l’Industrie, where all the pictures that had been officially turned down for the Salon proper would be exhibited. That was the famous “Salon des Refuses” which became the first officially recognised show of avant-garde painting. A good many artists took part, including Manet who exhibited three canvases among, which one shown under the title Le Bain (no. 363 in the catalogue) or The foursome, and now celebrated as Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe, which shocked people profoundly. Manet was very much surprised; he had no idea anyone would be upset by his attempts to “modernise” classical subjects. The picture was inspired by a lost painting of Raphael’s, the Judgment of Paris , known in an engraving of Marcantonio Raimondi’s, and Giorgione’s famous Concert champetre, in the Louvre. People were shocked both by subject, which was considered indecent, and by the realistic way the nude figure was rendered, a very different approach from the still fashionable Ingres ideal, and there was a general outcry.
In 1864 however, two of Manet’s paintings Incident at a bull-fight and Christ with angelswere hung at the Salon. There was another scandal at the 1865 Salon, where among other paintings, Manet showed Olympia, a nude inspired by a poem by Zacharie Astruc. Again Victorine Meurend was the model. Once more Manet was inspired by old masters; this time his sources were Titian’s Urbino Venus and on the technical side Goya’s Maja desnuda. Critics and the public as a shameless apology for prostitution, and it was called such names as “Odalisque with a yellow belly”, “Venus with a cat” and “a kind of female gorilla”. Only Baudelaire and Zola prised it.
In the same year, 1865, Manet went to Spain to look at the paintings that had so much influences his work. Goya left him cold, but he was enthusiastic about Velázquez. The following year he sent two works to the Salon, The Fifer and The tragic actor, or Portrait of Rouviere as Hamlet. In 1867 he painted The execution of the Emperor Maximilian inspired by Goya. He did not exhibit anything at the Salon that year, but instead shown an important collection of some fifty paintings at the Exposition Universelle. During this period, and indeed up to the time of his death, Manet painted some very fine still lifes, such as Vase of peonies (c. 1864—1865) and The Salmon (1866). In the 1869 Salon Manet, who was back in favour there again , sent Lunch in the studio and The Balcony, with Berthe Morisot in the foreground, Jenny Clauss, a musician who married the painter Pierre Prince, on her left, and further back Antoine Guillemet the landscape artist, with Leon-Koella-Leenholff behind.
In august 1872 Manet, who much admired Frans Hals painting The Gipsy woman in the Louvre, paid a visit to Holland. This inspired his painting Le Bon Bock which was a great success at the 1873 Salon. The same year he painted the Portrait of Nina de Callias known as Nina de Villard: lady with fans, with its combination of various influences – Frans Hals, the great Japanese engravers, the fragmented technique of the Impressionists. Manet was gradually moving nearer to Impressionism and painting out of doors, as can be seen in his Game of Croquet and The Railway, both painted in 1873. In 1874 he was at Argenteuil, painting with Claude Monet outdoors, and his work then began to show more lively technique; the colouring became lighter and brighter, though he still occasionally used his favourite rather sombre colours. Among the best examples of that period are: Boating; Argenteuil, les canotiers, shown at the 1875 Salon; Claude Monet painting in his floating studio and The Monet family in the garden.
In September 1875 ha paid a short visit to Venice, which resulted in the painting Venice: the Grand Canal. Three particularly good examples of Manet’s late conversion to Impressionism, and its luminous colouring are Le Lunge (1875), then two pictures painted in 1878 from the windows in his studio at 4 Rue Saint-Petersbourg: Rue Mosnier with flags and Paviors in the Rue Mosnier. But Manet was always more than a real Impressionist, much more interested in “modern painting” than working in the open air, which soon abandoned to concentrate on was more immediately attractive to his temperament and outlook: for instance, Nan (1877), In the Green house (1878) exhibited at the 1879 Salon, and At Pere Lathuille’s, shown in the 1880 Salon. In 1880 sings of ataxia appeared. He was living at Bellevue at the time , then he went to Versailles and later to Rueil, where he continued painting In a very personal naturalistic style. Works of this period include: Corner of the garden at Bellevue; The Walk; Girl in a garden, al three painted in 1880; The Bench (1881) and The Bar at the Folies-Bergere, exhibited in 1882.
He died in Paris in 1883.
Based on Phaidon encyclopedia of Impressionism, Maurice Serullaz, Phaidon, 1978