Born into a rich family, Manet lived a life of comfortable leisure among the Parisian elite and seemed to personally know every French artist, thinker, and writer of any significance. At the Salon, Paris’ celebrated annual art show, he never hesitated to rattle viewers out of their comfort zones with his aggressively confrontational paintings. Paradoxically, his art remained conscientiously rooted in art history and tradition. His style defies easy categorization but by the time of his untimely death he justifiably earned his title as the “father of modernism.”
Until January 1, visitors to the Toledo Museum of Art can enjoy the most impressive assortment of Manet’s paintings this side of Paris’ River Seine. Manet: Portraying Life assembles a display of 40 portraits on loan from collections as far away as Japan. In the accompanying exhibition catalog, Brian Kennedy and Christopher Le Brun, presidents of the Toledo Museum and the London Royal Academy of Arts, respectively, explain that this show is the first ever entirely dedicated to Manet’s straight portraits.
The exhibition represents a joint effort organized by the Toledo Art Museum and the Royal Academy, the only other venue to which it will travel. It is arranged into several sections by subject matter including The Artist and His Family, Artists, Men of Letters & Figures of the Stage, The Status Portrait, and Models. Two additional rooms arranged by medium include pastels and photographs. Though taken by other artists, the photographs show what many of his sitters looked like during Manet’s time and provide references for comparison.
Enough chronological spread in each room demonstrates the extraordinary breadth of Manet’s versatile style. His Emile Zola (1868), for example, reveals an interest in impressionism, particularly in its emphatic two-dimensionality, yet it seems altogether refined in comparison to George Moore in the Artist’s Garden (1879), its surface seemingly attacked with the brush and left in a deliberate state of unfinish. Woman with a Cat (1880) thoroughly destroys any continuity of space; its shattered-mirror appearance seems even to anticipate Picasso. In his Portrait of Emilie Ambre as Carmen (1880), the sitter’s crimson jacket seems hurriedly scribbled together with aggressive rapid-fire brushwork. The show’s catalogue informs us that Manet actually spent considerable time and effort making his portraits look hastily executed and effortless, much to the exasperation of his subjects who found themselves sitting for as many as 15 sessions.
Yet just when we resolve to categorize Manet as emphatically modern, this show reminds us that he also possessed strong roots in tradition. The consummate cosmopolitan, he traveled all over Europe and visited its art museums. Through copying, he gained acute familiarity with the works of the old masters in the Louvre. Boy Blowing Bubbles (1867), for example, betrays his admiration for the 18th century French painter Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin. In the centuries-old genre of vanitas painting, ephemeral objects such as bubbles or flowers symbolize life’s brevity. In one unusual family portrait, Fishing (1862-63), Manet even depicts his family dressed in attire more befitting a 17th century painting by Peter Paul Rubens, whom he also admired.
Some may feel disappointed that a few of Manet’s more impressive portraits will only show at the Royal Academy, such as an early version of his infamous Déjeuner sur l’herbe, in which model Victorine Meurent, immortalized in Manet’s Olympia, scandalously poses with two fully clothed Parisian male students. However, visitors to Toledo can take turns at the receiving end of Meurent’s penetrating stare in a portrait executed in 1862. The model also features in The Railway (1873) and Street Singer (1862). Visitors to the Toledo Art Museum can also see prints and drawings by Manet and his contemporaries, free of charge, in its Works on Paper gallery. This special exhibit of drawings compliments the main exhibition and includes first editions of books by Emile Zola and Victor Hugo.
Manet: Portraying Life, offers the viewer a wonderful cross-section of the many styles in which he worked and the many circles in which he moved. His portraits represent a visual Who’s Who of 19th century French art, literature, theater, and politics. Figures such as Monet, Morisot, Degas, Proust, Boudelaire, Zola, and Clemenceau all make appearances. Like Manet himself, this show contains many unpredictable encounters.