One of the most famous painters of the 19th century, Edouard Manet was raised in a traditional, wealthy bourgeois family and was classically trained. Nonetheless, Manet is often referred to as the Father of Modern Art: he was the first of the Modernist painters who was solidly rooted in art history, granting Manet a “dual citizenship” that both informed and confounded his career.
References to, and images from, Greek mythology and the Bible were appropriate subject matter, according to traditionalists. Manet jettisoned traditional subject matter and chose instead the daily life in Second Empire Paris (1850s-1870), especially cafe life, beggars, prostitutes, construction workers, and their displacement caused by the building boom of Napoleon III and his civic planner, Baron Haussman.
Edouard Manet. The Old Musician, 1862. Oil on canvas, 73 3/4″ by 97 11/16″. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
The Old Musician, with identified subjects from the “picturesque slum” near Manet’s home, confronts us with the newly disenfranchised – an organ grinder, a rag-picker, an ironmonger, all resigned and impassive. Manet paintings, both in subject and style – such as rapid brushstrokes that obscure details – deviated from the precision preached by the Academy. It is curious, then, that Manet steadfastly sought recognition and acceptance by the Salon, the conservative Paris arts exhibition run by none other than the French Academy.
Edouard Manet. Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, 1863. Oil on canvas, approx. 7′ by 8’10”. Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
Manet submitted Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (Lunch on the Grass) to the 1863 Salon, making two iconographic and formal references I see:
- to Concert Champetre, a painting then believed to be by Giorgione but now acknowledged to be by Titian, and
- to Raphael’s Judgement of Paris.
But Manet offended traditional academics in two (at least) ways:
- the nude, sensual goddess of art history has been replaced with a naked woman in an ambiguous setting; and
- Manet uses inaccurate perspective and skewed sizes. The scale of the boat secured on the riverside, for instance, is far too small compared to the bathing woman, all painted in a non-traditional style using little gradation of color.
Undeterred by criticism, Manet changed the title to Le Bain (The Bath) and submitted it the same year to the Salon des Refusés, an arts exhibition established by Napoleon III for paintings rejected by the Salon. Even in that less conservative arena, Manet was again rejected amidst scorn and derision.
Two years later, Manet submitted his Olympia to the Salon, again nodding to art history with reference to:
- Venus of Urbino, one of the Titian paintings Manet saw on a trip to Italy
- Goya’s Naked (or Nude) Maja
- Depictions of the odalisque and slave relationship.
Titian’s Olympia has soft curves, an adoring, coy look up at the (male) viewer, and a sleeping dog, a symbol of fidelity. Conversely, Manet’s Olympia is angular, sports a condescending, bold look down at the (male) viewer, and an angry black cat arching its back.
Above: Edouard Manet. Olympia, 1863. Oil on canvas, 4’3″ by 6′ 2 1/4″. Musee d’Orsay, Paris.
Left: Titian. Venus of Urbino, 1538. Oil on canvas, 48″ by 66″. Uffizi, Florence, Italy.
Almost predictably, these Manet paintings provoked outrage, with one critic referring to the “yellow-bellied odalisque” of Manet.
Retrospectively, it was the brilliance of Manet to maintain references to art history and to ignore prescribed subject matter and technique.
By liberating both content and technique, this “dual citizen” earned Manet the moniker, Father of Modern Art.