National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: Manet and His Influence

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When Edouard Manet began to study painting in 1850, Paris' familiar, broad, tree-lined streets did not yet exist, and the life of the city was not a subject artists explored. Young artists could expect to succeed only through the official Academy exhibitions known as Salons, whose conservative juries favored biblical and mythological themes and a polished technique. Within twenty-five years, however, both Paris and painting had new looks. Renovations had opened the wide avenues and parks we know today, and painting was transformed when artists abandoned the transparent glazes and blended brushstrokes of the past and turned their attention to new techniques and to life around them. Contemporary urban subjects and a bold style, which offered paint on the canvas as something to be admired in itself, gave their art a strong, new sense of the present.

More than in his teacher's studio, Manet learned to paint in the Louvre by studying old masters. He was particularly impressed by the seventeenth-century Spanish artist Diego Velázquez, contrasting his vivid brushwork with the "stews and gravies" of academic style. Manet began to develop a freer manner, creating form not through a gradual blending of tones, but with discrete areas of color side by side. He drew on the old masters for structure, often incorporating their motifs, but giving them a modern cast.

image of Olympia

Several artists had already begun to challenge the stale conventions of the Academy when Manet's Olympia (today in the collection of the Musée d'Orsay, Paris) was accepted for the Salon in 1865. It caused a scandal. Critics advised pregnant women to avoid the picture, and it was re-hung to thwart vandals. Viewers were not used to flat space and shallow volumes in painting. To many, Manet's "color patches" appeared unfinished. Even more shocking was the frank honesty of the courtesan: her boldness—not nudity—offended. Her languid pose copied a painting of Venus by the Italian artist Titian, but Manet did not cloak her with mythology.

Manet's succès de scandale made him a leader of the avant-garde. In the evenings at the Café Guerbois, near his studio, he was joined by writers and artists, including Claude Monet, Frédéric Bazille, and others who would go on to organize the first impressionist exhibition. Manet's embrace of what Charles Baudelaire termed the "heroism of modern life" and his bold manner with paint inspired the future impressionists, though Manet never exhibited with them.

Events in Manet's Time

1848Louis Phillipe abdicates; Louis-Napoléon elected President
1851First edition of The New York Times
1852Louis-Napoléon proclaims himself Emperor Napoléon III, forming the Second Empire
1853Baron Haussmann begins renovations of Paris
1855Gustave Courbet opens an alternative exhibition space, Pavilion du Réalisme
1856Nadar takes the first aerial photographs from a balloon above Paris
1857Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal and Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary published
1859Charles Darwin's The Origins of Species published
1862Actress Sarah Bernhardt debuts in Paris
1863Emancipation Proclamation
Death of Eugène Delacroix
Works by Manet and James McNeill Whistler exhibited at the Salon des Refusés
1864Louis Pasteur develops the pasteurization process
1866Jacques Offenbach's La Vie Parisienne debuts
1867Emperor Maximilian is executed in Mexico
Death of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
Japanese art shown at the Exposition Universelle
1870French defeated in the Franco-Prussian War after four-month siege of Paris
Death of Frédéric Bazille
1871Two-month rule of the Commune ends violently; the French Republic restored
Arthur Rimbaud's Une Saison en enfer published
1872Emile Zola's La Curée published
1874First impressionist exhibition

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