Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Flowers, 1872
Exhibition: Manet, Portraying Life
Location: The Royal Academy of Arts, London
Dates: January 26- April 4 2013
In his day, Manet was known as the rebel who became a thorn in the side of the French Academy. Yet portraiture may seem an unlikely genre for challenging the status quo. Now a magisterial exhibition, ‘Manet: Portraying Life’, reveals how the artist made his mark as a modernist during the course of his career by painting friends, family and Parisian society.
This singularly important exhibition is the first ever retrospective devoted to the portraiture of Edouard Manet. Spanning the entire career of this enigmatic and at times controversial artist, ‘Manet: Portraying Life’ brings together works from across Europe, Asia and the USA.
Manet’s engagement with portraiture has never been explored in exhibition form before, despite it constituting around half of his artistic output. Manet painted his family, friends and the literary, political and artistic figures of his day, giving life not only to his subjects but also to Parisian society of the time.
The exhibition consists of more than 50 works, among them are portraits of Manet’s most frequent sitter, his wife Suzanne Leenhoff, luminaries of the period Antonin Proust, Émile Zola and Stéphane Mallarmé, and scenes from everyday life revealing Manet’s forward-thinking, modern approach to portraiture.
Commissioned portraits often tell us more about the aesthetic ideas and fashions of an era than about the artist. Happily, Manet took on remarkably few portrait commissions, thus retaining control over the undertaking, bringing it to a flourishing conclusion or, on occasion, abandoning his attempt. Not only did he pick and choose his models, he innovated with sharper lighting, more natural poses and working alla prima (wet on wet paint), then scraping back the paint, rather than making deadening revisions to his bold brushwork.
Portraits were often paired with subject pictures as Manet’s Salon submissions. While they cannot stand for his whole oeuvre, they offer a strand of vital continuity, unquestionably bringing us closer to the man and his competitive, gossipy and glamorous world. Moreover they give us an insight into the Paris of Manet’s time, seen from an haut bourgeois perspective perhaps, but one whose painterly verve remains fresh and compelling.
“In a face, look for the main light and the main shadow; the rest will come naturally — it’s often not important. And then you must cultivate your memory, because Nature will only provide you with references. Nature is like a warden in a lunatic asylum. It stops you from becoming banal.” – Edouard Manet
View our entire Manet collection by clicking on one of the images below:
The Railway, 1873
The composition for The Railway was set up by Manet, posing his favourite model Victorine Meurent, as the woman in the black silk bonnet, whose lustre he so lovingly catches, leaving it unclear whether she is the child’s mother, elder sister or nursemaid.
Mme. Manet in the Conservatory, 1879
Suzanne regularly appears in Manet’s work, such as Mme Manet in the Conservatory , but the artist does not disguise her increasing corpulence. Manet’s many portraits of other, more glamorous, women such as Isabelle Lemonnier and Madame Guillemet betray his roving eye and attraction to the svelte ladies of his circle.