The exhibition is arranged into nine sections, divided by themes that illustrate the genres, the development and the sensational innovation of Manet’s expressive language. His leading role among the cultural avant garde of his day, from Baudelaire to Zola and Mallarmè, is highlighted, and an analysis made of the different meaning of his trips to Venice, 20 years apart.
I. Manet’s Italys
While his encounter with the Pastoral Concert, at the time attributed to Giorgione (now Titian) was fateful, his study of the Italian masters intensified after his first trip to Italy, in 1853, to Venice for almost a month, then Florence and possibly Rome. His copies of the intense Self-portrait by Tintoretto and Titian’s Pardo Venus, for example, date from 1854. In 1856 he left Couture’s studio and the following year returned to Italy, to Florence, where he “sieved” its riches: he copied paintings and drawings at the Uffizi, Andrea del Sarto’s frescoes in the Santissima Annunziata, Luca della Robbia’s reliefs in the Duomo and much more, producing more than 140 works, mainly details, single figures and groups of people. The works shown here carefully document this pathway and follow its developments through to the first masterpiece and the first scandal, the revolutionary, disturbing Déjeuner sur l’herbe. It was rejected by his contemporaries because of the impudence with which he overturned the meaning of explicit classical citations, the “coded” autobiographical references, the implied criticism of the social prejudices of the day, the strange, disturbing incommunicability that pervades it and, of course, his entirely new and incomprehensible painting methods.
II. The Fates of Venus
In this room, dominated by the exceptional, unmissable juxtaposition of Titian’s Venus of Urbino and Manet’s Olympia, the special role of 16th-century Venetian painting in Manet’s inspiration is highlighted. Titian and Veronese for the Woman with the Jug – the first depiction of Suzanne – and Tintoretto for the elaborate portrait of his parents: Venetian painting appreciated, studied and filtered through life itself. During his stay in Florence, Manet made a copy of the Venus of Urbino, amongst others. Six years later this creative process gave rise to Olympia, then presented at the Salon in 1865.The two paintings have much in common, despite their fairly different meanings: the nude highlighted by the presence of jewels (and slippers in Olympia), the posture, the animal (a puppy, symbol of loyalty in Venus, which Titian painted as a wedding picture; a cat, demonic symbol in Olympia), the vertical scanning of the space behind and the maids (serene, bright, familiar background in Venus, dark and pruriently evocative in Olympia), the light (warm and diffuse in Venus, cold and raw in Olympia), the left hand on the pubis (a soft touch in Venus, a kind of barrier in Olympia) and the gaze turned to the viewer. But while that of Venus transmits an erotic languor dense with promise, Olympia looks at the observer with an indifferent eye.
III. North/South (Still Life)
Manet, who although preferring “history painting”, with articulate compositions and figures, also produced a large number of still lifes, mainly as an effective way of ensuring some critical acclaim. Manet’s still lifes speak of life and death, in keeping with the traditional meaning of this genre, and were inspired on one hand by the styles of the Northern school (Dutch in particular) and the French and Italian schools on the other. Many of the small paintings were to be given away: to friends like Antonin Proust (The Lemon) and Champfleury (White Peonies and Secateurs), critics like Théophile Thoré (Stem of Peonies and Secateurs) and collectors like Charles Ephrussi (Asparagus). The small, precious Stucco Room that houses this section of the exhibition presents two sacred scenes at each side of the door leading to the next room. They portend the theme of the next section and so have been integrated into the exhibition pathway.
IV. Solitude of Jesus
Manet tried his hand at some moving representations of Christ and His Passion. The Italian sources of inspiration play a fundamental (and long underrated role) for these, too, as shown by the works exhibited here. One of the two drawings is a recent, extraordinary discovery, exhibited to the public here for the first time. It is of a pained Christ in the solitude of the sepulchre, naked, desolate, almost monochrome, taken from one of the frescoes by Andrea del Sarto in the Santissima Annuziata Basilica in Florence by Manet in 1857. The other is a watercolour that shows the dead Christ with angels, presented – unsuccessfully – at the 1864 Salon, in which the references not only to Andrea del Sarto’s fresco clearly emerge, but also to iconographies like that of Antonello da Messina’s masterpiece in the Correr Museum’s collections shown here, along with two drawings, precisely to highlight the possible references. The other (this) wall is occupied by Manet’s Jesus Mocked by Soldiers, shown at the 1865 Salon along with Olympia. More theatrical and Baroque than the Christ of the year before, like that (and Olympia) it was heavily criticised.
V. A very hybrid Spain
Manet visited Spain only in 1865. At the Prado he was astonished by Velázquez, but he had already had the chance to appreciate the Louvre’s paintings by Goya, El Greco and Velázquez himself; artists that, from 1838 to 1848, made up Louis Philippe’s “Spanish gallery”. Hispanicism was on the other hand much in vogue in Paris at the time and it was by exhibiting a Spanish Guitarist at the 1861 Salon that Manet obtained a success that was not to be repeated in subsequent years. Lola Melea – called Lola of Valencia – was the star of a Spanish dance company that had enormous success at the Paris Hippodrome. Manet depicted her in a celebrated portrait originally conceived against a monochrome background in the spirit of Velázquez, which he was to alter years later. The pose is taken from Goya but the volume of the skirt refers to Watteau. The boy in uniform portrayed in Le Fifre (The Fifer) is indecipherable and dramatic. His empty gaze and the tragic air of the image standing out against the background, also empty, are forcefully striking, evoking a kind of silent solitude (despite the musical instrument). The background is again that of Velásquez, but the figure has the same fragility as the Boy Carrying a Sword inspired by Gozzoli. Manet intended winning the Salon public of 1866 with this painting, but it was not even accepted.
VI. Between music and theatre
This room and the next two illustrate Manet’s relationship with the culture and society of his time from different perspectives. The works exhibited in this room again highlight the classical allusions (the Pastoral Concert in the Music Lesson, the symbology of music as the “art of time” in the Young Lady at her Piano) and greater attention to the tastes and society of the time, but also – as always – the artist’s creative independence and his placing of himself outside conventions. This is why the Balcon – apparently part of a genre then in vogue, that of a scene of upper middle-class life – depicts three elegant people who are unable to communicate, each of them turning a different and isolated look to the world, as if lost in their own interior dream. It is precisely this that suggested the matching in the exhibition with Carpaccio’s Two Venetian Ladies, also “lost” in a suspended situation, and immersed in secret, indecipherable thoughts. The incommunicability that seeps from the silent trio shown in the Balcony is positioned, however, at the antipodes of society imagination and fashion. Presented at the 1869 Salon, the painting once again aroused criticism and incomprehension.
VII. Contemporary Parnassus
Manet was the only painter who put himself into contact with all the writers and poets of his time. And he was also the only one to have broken down the barriers between different aesthetics, communicating with Naturalism, poetic Parnassus and early Symbolism, in a dense weave of rich and strategic relations for the painter’s art and life. This room presents illustrations, documents and testimony of these, along with the famous paintings. ZIn 1867 Manet exhibited the portrait of Zola at the Salon, making it a kind of manifesto of a cultural brotherhood. At the same time he was open to collaboration with other avant-gardes of the time, taking part, for example, in the Sonnets et eaux-fortes, a collection of 42 paired poems and etchings by the same number of artists. He came into contact with Stéphane Mallarmé in October 1873 in the circle of the multi-faceted poet and inventor Charles Cros and of Nina de Callias. The two were never to leave one another: together they transformed Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven into an art book and, still together, gave rise to another great production, The Afternoon of the Faun, a masterpiece of poetic hermeticism and editorial luxury. Manet portrayed his poet friend in the same year: the cigar smoke in the painting is a metaphor for the rarefaction of Mallarmè’s poetry.
VIII. Manet society painter
The 1870s began with the dramatic events of the Franco-Prussian war (in which Manet took part), the Paris Commune, the fall of the Second Empire and the advent of the Third Republic. Subjects related to contemporary society were the main inspiration in this period: the face of Berthe Morisot (friend, colleague, model and, from 1874, Manet’s sister-in-law) best expresses this tendency. He also began painting subjects set “in exteriors” – such as On the Beach, shown here – but remaining faithful to a profound psychological base and the formulation of a “history painter”. In 1879, the government had been taken over by the radicals and Manet, having moved to another, larger studio, surrounded himself with admirers, critics, musicians, painters and politicians such as his long-time friend Antonin Proust, who in 1881 became a government minister, and Georges Clemenceau, whose portrait we have just seen, painted with a few strokes, without background and a great sense of empathy.
IX. The boundless sea…
The theme of the sea, to which Manet was to return in about 40 works, was influenced by his youthful experience (departure on a training ship at the age of 16), by frequent holidays from 1865 on the north coast of France and by the commercial possibilities of the genre. It was precisely one of the paintings in this room, Moonlight on Boulogne Harbour, that prompted the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel to buy this and many other works by Manet, giving a turn to his career. Another collector, the baritone Jean-Baptiste Faure, favoured the seascapes and it was he who in 1875 bought the View of Venice shown here, one of the finest examples of the artist’s production in this period, in which an incredible range of light and colour is unfurled. The painting was created during Manet’s second stay in Venice, in September 1874, by then a renowned painter who was reflecting on his own formal research, among other things. He had not taken part in the Impressionist exhibition, but during the summer he had visited Monet and had discussion with Renoir. This stay in Venice thus occurred at an important creative moment, when he decided to devote himself to light, to subjects in movement and the broken brushstroke: in all this, Venice was an inevitable and strategic source of inspiration. The Escape of Rochefort, shown here, is Manet’s last big project, conceived for the 1883 Salon, which the artist was not to attend, having been struck down by his illness on 30 April. The theme of the escape of a contemporary political opponent is here woven into the eternal and romantic one of the infinite vastness of the ocean.